Monday, February 01, 2016

Despite Relatively Simple Structure, 'Mothers & Sons' Provides Insightful Look at Family, Society, Intolerance and Change -- Chicago Theater Review

Theater Review

Mothers & Sons
a recent play by Terrence McNally
directed by Steve Scott
Northlight Theatre, Skokie, IL
Thru February 27

Artistic brilliance is all too often equated with originality, breaking new ground and being stylistically diverse, distinctive, daring.

But I've frequently found that the distinguishing merits of exceptional playwrights--and actors, painters, movie directors, novelists, chefs, heck even copywriters--can just as commonly, if not as readily, be revealed in how adroitly they execute the more traditional and straightforward.

I am not all that familiar with the oeuvre of Terrence McNally, having previously seen (and liked) just one of his 30+ plays: Frankie and Johnny in the Clair de Lune, his film adaptation of which--simply Frankie and Johnny--may well be my favorite romantic comedy ever.

This means I haven't seen McNally's two Tony-winning plays--Love! Valor! Compassion! and Master Class--but have consistently enjoyed his work as the book writer on musicals, including Ragtime, The Visit, The Rink, The Full Monty, A Man of No Importance and more.

So I arrived at the Chicago-area premiere of Mothers & Sons with solid regard for its writer and vague awareness that the play had been decently reviewed and Tony-nominated on Broadway in 2014.

Northlight has regularly produced stellar work, including my two favorite plays of 2015, further reason to have high expectations.

Yet while Mothers & Sons unarguably deals with a substantive topic worthy of my attention--the U.S. AIDS epidemic that took millions of young lives, most vociferously in the 1980s and '90s, each one excruciatingly tragic--its basic setup and synopsis suggest something a fledgling or even student playwright might tackle:

4 characters, 1 room, 90 minutes, the "action" throughout consisting entirely of conversation among the cast in various combinations.

A gay man, now quite successful and living on Central Park West in New York City with his husband and their 6-year-old son, is visited unexpectedly by the mother of a former lover who died of AIDS while they were a couple 20 years ago in more spartan quarters. The mother, a Long Island native who had moved to Dallas after getting married, had repudiated her son due to his homosexuality, shunned him during his illness and has only met his partner once previously, at a memorial service shortly after her son's death. She remains bitter, angry, haughty and intolerant.

Certainly, every writer would tackle this premise a bit differently, and many with a deftness of concept and language could likely make it quite compelling.

Yet many might take similar paths as McNally, including playing up the mother's denial and disgust, her son's boyfriend's surprise--and myriad other emotions--over her showing up out of the blue, their anger at each other, shared-yet-divergent senses of loss, conflicting worldviews, awkward small talk about the present, bitter vitriol about the past, etc.

And as it plays out, at Northlight under the direction of Steve Scott, Mothers & Sons in the sound byte sense doesn't go far beyond the readily imaginable.

Yet not only does it move along briskly, showcase McNally's gift for dialogue and feature first-rate performances--Cindy Gold as Katharine, Jeff Parker as Cal, Benjamin Sprunger as his husband Will and Ben Miller as their son--it provides many sharp insights, undoubtedly born from the experiences and memories of its gay, 77-year-old, longtime NYC-dwelling author.

Often with deft subtlety rather than direct commentary, Mothers & Sons showcases progress in gay rights since Cal's relationship with Andre--who had been a theater actor of some renown--including marriage equality and the greater commonality & acceptance of same-sex couples being parents. 

At the same time, through Katharine--whose dogmatic imperiousness Gold embodies almost-too-well toward making the whole play often feel unlikable--McNally shows that those in the LGBT community are still far from enjoying full acceptance, even from their families, in 2016 and/or on their deathbeds.

Especially as the nuances are as meaningful as most plot points in Mothers & Sons, I'll skip the citation of additional specifics, but will note that along with providing shrewd insight into gay life, the devastating plague of AIDS, societal mores, alienated families, etc., the play left me thinking about geographical cultural variances--even among neighboring towns and just across Central Park--as well as the myriad challenges of child rearing, how much past relationships can affect future ones and a whole lot else.

As bespeaks the gifts a playwright like McNally has assuredly honed throughout his storied career, Mothers & Sons is infuriating, funny, touching, poignant, simple and deep, often almost simultaneously. Just on a semantics level, what it expresses is estimable.

While it isn't close to the most nouveau drama I've ever seen, not only is its storyline one I've never specifically encountered, it is quite entertaining and engrossing at face value.

But what makes Mother & Sons relatively special comes in how much it says without overtly seeming to.

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