Mothers and Sons, penned by award-winning playwright Terrence McNally, opens on a not-so-uncommon scene: mother-in-law and son-in-law stand at the window of the latter’s apartment, awkwardly exchanging small talk and commenting on the weather. They wait for someone; the anticipation hangs palpably in the air.
However, when the name of the missing person comes up, it’s tinged with pain. The audience soon realizes that this isn’t a friendly visit—it’s a dutiful one. Katherine (Nancy E. Carroll) has come to see Cal (Michael Kaye) after years of estrangement to return the unopened journal of Andre, her son and Cal’s late lover, who died from AIDS in the 1990s.
The play is complex, the characters nuanced and flawed—the meaning of it can be a challenge to unearth in the surprisingly swift 90-minute run time. Mothers and Sons seems to encapsulate how much society has changed between the 1980s and today, especially in regards to the gay rights movement. Cal has a young husband, Will (Nile Hawver), whom he met online, owns his own apartment, and even has a young son, Bud (Liam Lurker). Yet he is still haunted by the terrors of the sickness that ravaged Andre and the dark years that stole away most of the other men of his generation, and he still feels as though the safety and comfort he enjoys today are unreal. If anything, Katharine represents the slowly dying opposition: she blames Cal in part for Andre’s death, she affirms repeatedly that Andre wasn’t gay before he left home for New York, and she offhandedly drops racially tainted jabs that offend the fiercely politically correct Cal and Will.
Yet despite its framework within the complicated history of the gay rights movement, Mothers and Sons is not a queer play. It avoids making Cal and Andre’s lifestyle the main dramatic crux of the story, their homosexuality the root of the characters’ suffering. This is affirmed, almost to the point of obnoxiousness, by how perfect Cal’s life has become. His family operates almost with sitcom-level charm, with his cute and precocious son, his ruggedly handsome husband, and the open and vocal displays of affection they regularly trade throughout the course of the play. It seems to cry out, “See, this is normal!” but borders on projecting a message that the ideal gay lifestyle is one only attainable by those of a certain economic and racial background. It pushes the political message of marriage as the ultimate arrival of equality, which is just not an identifiable or even viable option for many people.
These criticisms aside, Mothers and Sons provides powerful commentary on the passage of time and the inevitable loss suffered by parents not just if their child dies—but even when their child just grows up and moves away. Katharine has defined herself as “Andre’s mother” for so long that she doesn’t know who she is, or how to even be seen as a person, without him. The play examines the sometimes irreconcilable distance between members of consecutive generations, and of the paltry bridges we try to build towards each other with words, the only method we have—one that so often falls short.
At its core, Mothers and Sons tells the story of a mother and a widower who still struggle to let go, and who have tried and failed to find comfort in each other. It’s about the lies we tell ourselves to get by. It’s about the pain felt by an entire generation of queer people, who found themselves targeted by a deadly disease that had no name, a disease with mysterious origins that was largely left unexamined by the medical community at large. It’s about coming to terms with the danger of pouring so much of yourself into another person that you lose yourself in the process. It’s a passionate, heartbreaking, wholly revelatory play about love.