Return of the matriarch

  • by Richard Dodds
  • Tuesday March 15, 2016
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Andrew Nance plays a character who is about to surprise<br>Velina Brown, as his late lover's mother, with a picture of her son in<br>Terrence McNally's <i>Mothers and Sons</i><br>at New Conservatory Theatre Center. Photo: Lois Tema
Andrew Nance plays a character who is about to surprise
Velina Brown, as his late lover's mother, with a picture of her son in
Terrence McNally's Mothers and Sons
at New Conservatory Theatre Center. Photo: Lois Tema

Why this meeting is happening just now, 20 years after their last encounter, isn't solidly explained. But as they acknowledge, both knew it would eventually happen. In Mothers and Sons, Terrence McNally returns to characters he introduced in the 1990 teleplay Andre's Mother. One of the characters has stayed bitterly frozen in time; the other is breezily in tune with the times, and their differences are now wider than ever.

The recent Broadway play, now at New Conservatory Theatre Center, is a necessary reminder that what is now an unexceptional occurrence " in this case, two men who have married and are raising a child " was inconceivable for not only the mother whose son died of AIDS years before, but also for his comfortably gay lover who is now part of a phenomenon that no longer seems revolutionary. There are those who would gleefully take it all away, but the focus of Mothers and Sons is on matters personal rather than political.

It is quite a battle royal that McNally has set up between Katherine Gerard, Andre's mother, and Cal Porter, whom Katherine still blames for Andre's lifestyle, illness, and death. Almost like prizefighters, they pummel at each other before taking short breaks between rounds. Even when they stop to take a breath, when moments of civility can arise, they are ill-tuned to each other's frequencies. "Should I alert you when I'm bantering?" Cal mockingly asks Katherine. And in a moment of her own style of bantering, she describes how circumscribed her widowed life has become in Dallas. "Thank God for Jeopardy," she says, "but even that is starting to annoy me."

The be-furred and elegantly coiffed Katherine has arrived unannounced at Cal's Manhattan apartment (rendered in suitably luxe fashion in Kuo-Hao Lo's set design). She is ostensibly there to return a personal object, and she is as mortified as surprised when Cal's husband, Will, and their eight-year-old son, Bud, come bounding in after an outing. Will, of course, has heard about Andre and his mother from Cal, but he is 15 years Cal's junior and met him after Andre had already been dead for nearly a decade. And their effervescent son has no idea who this woman is. "How did your little boy die?" he asks Katherine, after receiving a vague explanation of her circumstances.

Director Arturo Catricala deftly guides the production through its emotional twists, turns, and roundabouts. There isn't much to be done when Cal goes into monologue mode when talking about AIDS, except to make sure the actor playing Cal does so with a conviction rooted in character. Andrew Nance is successful in this challenge, as he is throughout the play, holding his own against Katherine and juggling this unexpected intersection of what now must seem like separate lives to him.

Velina Brown creates a formidable presence as Katherine, adroit at delivering withering putdowns, achingly bringing us into her pain when she allows her armor to be breached, and still horrified that her son died of such a stigmatized disease. When Cal proudly tells her that Andre's name is on the AIDS Quilt, she gasps, "His full name?"

Providing an effective counter to this toxic blast from the past, Daniel Redmond plays Will with an easygoing charm, a character for whom same-sex partnerships, marriage, and parenting are not extraordinary and who never saw his friends dying in quick succession from AIDS. As eight-year-old Bud, Aviv D. Drobey (who alternates in the role with Dash Ferrero) has a natural charm, and whose blissful innocence provides a final moment of such sweet satisfaction that it may moisten the eyes of even the most stoic of theatergoers.

 

Mothers and Sons will run at New Conservatory Theatre Center through April 3. Tickets are $25-$45. Call (415) 861-8972 or go to nctcsf.org.