NEW YORK — A quarter century ago during the AIDS crisis, as some Americans fought for the right just to die young with dignity, angry mothers could be seen at the funerals of their sons. If these mothers — and we're not talking about all, or even most, mothers of course, but there were many — acknowledged their dead gay sons' grieving partners at all, they did so somewhere on the road between reluctance and hostility. The denial of a hug, or even eye contact, at a funeral, is not easily forgotten.
To a large extent, Terrence McNally's moving, intensely resonant new Broadway play "Mothers and Sons" asks what has happened to those mothers (he might well ask the same of the fathers, although that would be a different, perhaps less forgiving, play), a couple of decades or so later. It does so by imagining one such mother, Katharine Gerard, layered with pain and fortitude by the unstinting actress Tyne Daly, showing up at the apartment of her long-dead son's old partner, Cal Porter, played by Frederick Weller as a man trying to do the right and decent thing after an old nightmare has just walked herself into his lovely New York pad. Katharine doesn't really know why she has arrived. Certainly, she doesn't have an apology in mind.
Either way, Cal has moved on, seizing the bright new moment for gay Americans, marrying a younger man, Will Ogden (Bobby Steggert) and adopting a cute child, Bud Ogden-Porter (Grayson Taylor). Cal marvels at the changes that have come in his lifetime (he is only about 50, it seems), but they also are his new reality with a partner who did not live through this history as an adult.
"I never expected to be a father," he tells his visitor. "He never expected not to be one."
To a large extent, McNally is chronicling the revolutionary changes he has seen in the lives of gay Americans — and what playwright has more right to do so? McNally, 75, who got married in 2010, writes here with the moral authority of one who has chronicled this fast-moving history in real, dramatic time; had "Mothers and Sons" been the work of a different playwright, the way it feels in the theater would be entirely different. The persona of the writer counts for a great deal here, aesthetically, politically and otherwise. Broadway doesn't often feel like a community talking to itself about the immediate moment, but it does here. This is also an exceptionally timely play, a piece that puts great change into context and, in the Broadway world, also has the advantage of having gotten there before anyone else; same-sex marriage became legal in New York only in summer 2011.
Watching the beautiful apartment — designed by John Lee Beatty and lit by Jeff Croiter — in director Sheryl Kaller's straight-up production, you are aware of the economic privilege that hangs over this play. Other mothers and sons who went through AIDS bereavement hell — without ending up with a grand Manhattan view, a doorman or enough money to come and go from Texas at will — surely had a different set of issues. The mothers and sons of AIDS from the lower economic strata lived through a very different history. Not necessarily the one told here. So stipulated.
Fundamentally, though, McNally has written a play of reconciliation. Daly, from whose visage it is difficult to avert your gaze for a moment, is determined to show us that her character cannot change who she is, nor entirely shake off her perception that her beloved child was not gay before he came to New York, a move that Cal of course sees as that of a young man escaping the misery of a suffocating home. But the truly formidable Daly does offer us the often exquisitely detailed sense of a woman taking in a new set of data, and testing out old feelings, just as the understated Weller, who is playing a very decent man, provides a rich exploration of the complexities that arrive when any old relationship, romantic or otherwise, rears its head in the present. Weller reads a little young. But he achieves a lot in his minimalist way — particularly the way he helps you see the kind young man he must have been before, at that funeral.
Steggert's assertive Will is very much a picture of entitled (and snippily politically correct) youth with only limited awareness of the hauntings of the past. That's partly Steggert's performance choices (and the directing choices), which to my mind, make Will a bit more annoying than McNally's careful shading perhaps intended, although this is the least nuanced character in the writing, and Steggert clearly wants to reveal his young man's insecurity, and so he does. "Mothers and Sons" is a triangular play (plus a kid) but the authorial sympathies are with those buffeted by time and age, those from different worlds who, with the passage of time, find they have much in common.
My eyes were moist through a good amount of "Mothers and Sons," frankly, even in its more manipulative sections (especially those, really, McNally being so adept at making us feel the weight of age and experience). The show works not least because of the creative team's enormous sympathy for his anti-gay, fictional mother, a character whose pain has ennobled. In the play's most eloquent section, Daly's Katharine gets to argue that partners move on, find other lovers, marry, adopt, gain a life pockmarked with slowly fading grief but a life, nonetheless.
Bereaved mothers, though, are not so lucky, especially if they refused to really know their sons when they were alive.
At the Golden Theatre, 252 W. 45th St., New York; 800-447-7400 or visit mothersandsonsbroadway.com.Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun