Review: ‘Mothers and Sons’ tackles big, tough issues

The rest of Terrence McNally’s provocative play, in its current run at StageWest, wrestles with the question, as the boy’s two gay fathers and a homophobic visitor discover that the child who posed the question just might provide the answer.

Minimally staged (in the square, with the audience on all four sides) and effectively acted, the 90-minute play tackles bigger, tougher issues than its four-person cast can possibly resolve, but the question of human nature is at the heart of all of it.

The visitor to the apartment on Manhattan’s Central Park West is Katharine, a bundle of jitters beneath her icy rigidity, a woman who knows she is playing a role, wearing a mask.  It’s a bravura performance by veteran actress Nancy Zubrod, who ultimately must engage the empathy of the other characters — and the audience — while showing why her host has long regarded her as a “monster.”

That host, Cal, engagingly played by Dan Haymes, tries to be hospitable to his unexpected guest, who is doing her best to freeze him out. A self-described “Yuppie,” it’s his nature to accommodate others. She resists his nervous attempts to engage her, maintaining her stony silence except for the most abrupt response. He tries to make jokes, and she responds, “Very little amuses me.”

It turns out that she is the mother of his former lover, Andre, a promising actor who died from AIDS 20 years ago. The older woman and the man her son loved have had no contact since. She doesn’t know that he has found new love, and a younger husband, and now has a son.  here’s a burst of energy when Will, ebulliently played by Hank Fisher, and their son Bud surge into the apartment, which becomes a meeting ground and a battle ground for four very different perspectives.

McNally’s play works best on this intimately human scale. It stumbles a little when it picks up a megaphone to deliver broader messages on the “plague” that decimated a “lost generation.” Such declamations from Will might have been better reserved for an editorial column. A fiction writer who is 15 years younger but more assertive than his partner, Will is less willing to play nice, and hasn’t had to fight the same battles that Cal has survived. (Though, as this weekend’s nightclub massacre in Orlando has shown, homophobia still exacts a tragic toll.) He’s more confident and confrontational. He’s also a little jealous of Cal’s former life, and former love, and resentful of Katharine’s intrusion.

The entire drama pivots around Andre, the one who isn’t there. Katharine can never accept that there wasn’t someone responsible for turning her son gay, and thus killing him. For Cal, his lover’s AIDS was a sign of infidelity that he accepted and has forgiven. That same ghost is in some way Will’s rival, and a reminder of a younger Cal that his husband will never know.  A Cal that might have married Andre if they’d been allowed at that time.  An Andre who might still be alive had modern medicine progressed a little faster, if there hadn’t been such a stigma, if more people had been doing something rather than just talking about the horror.

The climax of the play finds Katharine transformed, from a tight-lipped, fur-coated woman into one baring her soul, with a confessional soliloquy that just pours out. Bud then offers an impromptu fairy tale as benediction, one that might just come true. As each of them has attempted to reach some sort of accommodation with the past, the future is right in the room with them, the young boy with none of this baggage and all of this love.

The production isn’t anything like Broadway, or even off-Broadway. A New York audience would never accept the thrift-shop furnishings or the partners’ wardrobes as Manhattan at its most upscale and cosmopolitan. Co-directed by Todd Buchacker and Michael Tallman, this is more of an “Iowa nice” production, the delivery of lines less biting and bitchy.  But perhaps such an adaption attests to the universality of the material — that this isn’t just a gay play, or an AIDS play, or a Manhattan play.

It’s a play about the possibilities of reconciliation and redemption. It’s a play that can’t define “human nature,” but somehow immerses itself in it.

‘Mothers and Sons’

When: Through Sunday, June 19

Where: Kum & Go Theater at the Des Moines Social Club, 9th and Cherry Sts.

Ticket prices: $30 ($15 for students, $22 for seniors). 515-309-0251

Website: www.stagewestiowa.com