Preview by John Domini – Cityview – June 8, 2016
Even with no set and only one of the two actors in costume, the tension percolates. The opening minutes of “Mothers and Sons” bring together the conservative mother of a gay AIDS victim and his last, most serious lover. Even in rehearsal, they make an uneasy pair.
Nancy Zubrod plays the mother, Katherine, and StageWest had her wardrobe ready. In a formal dress, with a designer purse, she stood like a Marine with an M-27. Beside her, ex-lover Cal, played by Dan Haymes, tried to hide the strain under the banter of a tourist guide. The play begins at a window overlooking New York’s Central Park, with Cal pointing out features. The actors were rehearsing before a blank wall, but the real challenge was working around Zubrod.
“The woman’s a Bette Davis bitch,” Zubrod declared about her character. “She likes to rankle people and get under their skin. I love that!” For Zubrod, the role feels like a departure. Last seen in the madcap “Girls’ Weekend,” she has generally gone for laughs. But this time she gets to, as she puts it, “play nasty.” She also gets the swag. “My fur comes from Neiman-Marcus!” she exclaims. Zubrod laughs at that, and Haymes points out that the mother also contributes to the comedy. “There’s a lot of sneaky humor,” he says. “All this anxiety and all these one-liners.” Hank Fisher, who plays Cal’s new lover, Will, agrees. “The humor comes out of recognizing yourself in these people,” Fisher said.
Director Todd Buchacker has emphasized the closeness, doing without intermission and asking Tim Wisgerhof for an in-the-round set. He wants the audience “immersed” in the mother’s fumbling “attempts at reconciliation.” So, too, Buchacker goes on, his “amazing character” drawing us into “the whole AIDS crisis.”
“Mothers and Sons” had its Broadway debut in 2014, but its roots reach back to the late 1970s. In those days, playwright Terrence McNally began to write about the scene around him — Manhattan’s “Gay Revolution.” Disenfranchised and angry, gay men and women often flaunted their sexuality, and in doing so — like Cal’s lover — wound up dying young, estranged from their families.
Such rich dramatic material helped McNally win a shelf-full of awards, among them an Emmy for a 1990 TV play, “André’s Mother.” The mother of the title is the same as in this piece: the icy-yet-needy Katherine, whose “complications” feel so intriguing to the veteran Zubrod.
So, while her director speaks of the play’s place in “a history of the gay community,” its portrayal of the struggle to reconnect with lost loved ones, Zubrod comes back to simpler stuff. She wants to talk about hard feelings. “This woman is so sure that something made her son gay,” says Zubrod. “She’s sure it was something in his past or in his family. And that leaves her desperate to have somebody tell her she wasn’t a bad mother.”
Overheard In The Lobby: Cole Porter’s “Kiss Me Kate” opens at Ames Community Theater on June 10. CV
John Domini is a published local author who has lived on both coasts and abroad and enjoyed theater everywhere. See www.johndomini.com.