Tony Award-winning playwright Terrence McNally was understandably upset by some of the dismissive criticism that greeted his 2014 Broadway drama Mothers and Sons, which makes its Chicago-area debut this month courtesy of Northlight Theatre in Skokie.
"I was quite appalled at what some people said in now that we have marriage equality, it makes a play like Mothers and Sons irrelevant," said McNally. "I thought, 'How can you say that? Look at just what happened in Houston.'"
Indeed, voters in Houston swayed by anti-transgender fearmongering had rejected a broad anti-discrimination ordinance two weeks before McNally's November 2015 interview with the Windy City Times. A Texas native who grew up in Corpus Christi, Texas, the 76-year-old playwright was insistent that the monumental strides made by the LGBTQ community and other minority groups in America are still very much at risk.
"Homophobia and racism don't die because of civil rights and marriage equality," McNally said. "I think the play is more relevant because you realize that homophobia is a huge subject."
Homophobia rears its ugly head in Mothers and Sons, which is a sequel of sorts to McNally's 1990 PBS drama Andre's Mother. The earlier Emmy Award-winning TV movie focused on a Texas mother named Katharine whose son has passed away from complications of AIDS. Katharine attends a memorial service for her son in New York, and confronts Andre's surviving lover, Cal, in the process.
For Mothers and Sons, Katharine ( Cindy Gold ) and Cal ( Jeff Parker ) meet again more than two decades later in his upscale New York apartment. Yet now Katharine must also contend with Cal's family that includes his younger husband, Will Ogden ( Benjamin Sprunger ), and their son, Bud ( Ben Miller ).
"Mothers and Sons is looking at where we are today with AIDS as very much the unspoken subject of the play," McNally said. "[AIDS] did decimate a generation of people and there's a legacy and residue and many scars left."
McNally's view of Katharine is that she's a tragic woman because she is mired in the past and still filled with bitterness over her late gay son.
"She knows the ship has sailed and she's standing on the edge of the pier and is she going to be able to make it out onto that ship?" McNally posited about Katharine. "She's stranded by history."
Director Steve Scott was keen to tackle Mothers and Sons for Northlight because it's part of McNally's decades-long chronicle of the gay experience in America. From the playful 1970s gay bathhouse farce The Ritz to his more elegiac plays touching upon AIDS like Love! Valour! Compassion! and Lips Together, Teeth Apart, Scott is grateful for McNally's prolific dramatic output.
"In some ways, Mothers and Sons gets at Katharine's anti-homosexual feelings and questions the causes of that," Scott said. "She has problems of her own in the play that kind of make us understand where she's coming from and then see that point of view shift ever so slightly."
McNally originally wrote Mothers and Sons with the actress Tyne Daly in mind and the play is also dedicated to her. Daly was also Tony Award-nominated for her performance on Broadway. But Scott said the character of Katharine can also take in other interpretations, which is why he was so happy to see actress Cindy Gold have some great conversations with McNally during his recent November visit to Chicago.
"She's is a tough character, but ultimately I feel sorry for her," said McNally about Katharine, who notably rebuffs multiple offers to remove her winter coat throughout Mothers and Sons. "I care about her and she's a person, too, but she's made some very bad choices."
The Chicago-area premiere of Mothers and Sons runs from Friday, Jan. 22, through Sunday, Feb. 28, at Northlight Theatre, 9501 Skokie Blvd., Skokie. Preview tickets are $25-$54 and $25-$79 for the regular run; call 847-673-6300 or visit www.northlight.org .
Mothers and Sons was recently published as part of the Grove Press anthology Selected Works: A Memoir in Plays by Terrence McNally. It also includes play scripts to Frankie and Johnny in the Clair de Lune; The Lisbon Traviata: Lips Together, Teeth Apart; A Perfect Ganesh; Love! Valour! Compassion!; Master Class and And Away We Go.