Thursday, March 17, 2016

"Mothers and Sons"

Mothers and Sons
Terrence McNally

Velina Brown & Andrew Nance
She stands in rigid posture with her luxurious mink coat wrapped so tightly as to allow only a glimpse of her designer two-piece suit that is crowned by a single strand of pearls.  Clutching with clinched fists her purse as if the startled man before her might grab it at any moment, she starkly declares, “I’m not staying.”  But stay this elegantly attired statue of a greying woman does for the next ninety minutes as she and he struggle to come to terms with the AIDS-related death of her son -- his lover -- some twenty years prior.  Much has changed in the world around them since those days when AIDS was both a sure death sentence and a reason for many families to turn their backs in shame and righteousness on its victims.  What has not changed is the prevailing ache of loss, the futile need still to find blame, and the resulting anger for those Polaroid moments when backs were turned and hugs, not given.  In a gripping, raw-nerved unveiling of emotions long pent-up and unexpressed, New Conservatory Theatre Center presents a search for resolution and forgiveness in the latest Tony nominated play of Terrence McNally, Mothers and Sons. 

Velina Brown, Dashiell Ferrero, Daniel Redmond & Andrew Nance
After two decades of no communication, Katherine appears on a late December afternoon at the Fifth Avenue flat overlooking MOMA of her dead son’s former lover, Cal.  Bearing Andre’s journal sent to her years prior by Cal (a journal neither she nor Cal have either dared ever to open), Katherine is startled and increasingly incensed to discover Cal now has a happy family of himself, his younger husband Will, and their eight-year-old son Bud.  The two begin a volley of back-and-forth lobbed memories told with some smiles and sighs peppered by high velocity accusations thrown over the net in biting jabs of ‘Why didn’t you?,’ ‘How could you?,’ and ‘Where were you?’  In between their multiple ebbs and flows of moments when genuine connections occur in their reminisces of Andre and when eruptions suddenly explode as one or the other breaks in with a new jab, husband Will and son Bud pop in and out, sometimes to antagonize anew by making a snide remark (Will) and at other times, to diminish quickly the air’s tension by being an inquisitive, but totally innocent boy (Bud).  Both Katherine and Cal struggle if and how to relate to each other and in that push and pull, each begins to relinquish long-held secrets of self regret that have poisoned their souls.

Velina Brown gives a performance as Katherine that surely is deserving of much accolade and probable award recognition.  Every minute she is on stage, it is difficult for the spotlight not to stay hovered on her as she continually reacts to what she sees and hears around her in both carefully measured manners and astonishingly emotive expressions.  Her head jerks in minute twists, and her lips quiver ever so slightly before freezing once again.  She stiffens in abrupt defiance of accepting any blame, lashes out with a voice full of biting edge, and then melts into a tearful ball of cherished memories.  Her eyes are always looking out unseen windows between her and the audience as if she hopes to catch one more time a glimpse of her long-gone son or of a time when maybe she was more at peace with herself.  The late afternoon becomes a journey of unexpected discovery where she admits, “There’s so much to say that is not about Andre ... It’s all about me.”  A woman who comes in declaring, “I don’t want closure ... I want vengeance,” later discloses, “I was always only Andre’s mother ... They didn’t see me as a person.”  The complex person of Katherine is slowly, movingly, always convincingly revealed in masterful ways through Velina Brown’s stellar performance.

Andrew Nance too deserves praise for his hyper-speaking and bouncing with energy Cal but also for his ability to allow Cal’s combined pain, sorrow, and even bitterness to come through naturally and believably.  While Cal has clearly moved on these past nine years from Andre’s death to establish a wonderful life and family, Katherine’s appearance has unlocked both savored and suppressed memories that once out, open up hurt that has never been resolved.  “You should have held me that day ... I wanted you to love me for loving him,” he tells a still-unmoved Katherine.  Mr. Nance displays a remarkable range of emotions that nervously appear in his jumpy movements, sudden shifts of expression, and voice that hovers delicately between happy and sad, comforting and critical, stay longer and leave now. 

Alternating performances with Aviv Drobey, Dashiel Ferrero as Bud shows all the rambunctious, fearless comeuppance expected in an eight-year-old as well as the hit-you-in-the-heart genuineness that only a child that age can sometimes show to someone he is meeting for the first time.  With a barrage of questions for Katherine that freak out his parents, Bud immediately wins her over with his natural charm and caring; and the two build a connection that eventually becomes a bridge toward unexpected forgiveness and family.

As Cal’s husband Will, Daniel Redmond is often overly bombastic in his volume as he delivers a curious, unidentified, and inconsistent accent that goes unexplained.  Whenever his Will appears, it seems he just does not quite fit in with the rest of the cast or the mood of the moment.  Whether intentional or not, the contrast of his bull in a china shop manner to the rest of the action is often just a bit too much.  When he does settle into a more nuanced, lower-key approach to Will, then Mr. Redmond becomes effective in pushing boundaries of the conversations with Katherine without breaking the boundaries of credibility of character.

Casting decisions by Ben Randle and Stephanie Desnoyers along with the direction of Arturo Catricala make this Mothers and Sons particularly intriguing and edgy in ways probably not accomplished in its Broadway debut.  On Broadway, an all-white cast won accolades, particularly Tyne Daly for her Tony-nominated performance as Katherine.  In this New Conservatory venture, Katherine, her dead son, and Cal’s now-husband are all African-American, while both Cal and son Bud are Caucasian in appearance.  While Katherine never notes any of this in the script Terrance McNally has provided her, under Mr. Arturo’s direction and with Ms. Brown’s skills, there are looks and “humpfs” that seem clearly to say a thousand words of her underlying disapproval.  There is also a mounting tension in the audience (at least there was for me) just waiting for Katherine finally to say at any moment something like, “So you got you another beautiful black man, didn’t you, Cal?” (since she is so quick to point out many other issues she has with Cal’s present and past life ‘choices’).  There is also double meaning that could be easily implied when Katherine comes close to accusing Cal of infecting her son with AIDS.   All but said aloud is what she must be thinking that here is a white boy who lured her fine, African American son into a lifestyle that killed him with a white boy’s disease. Again, none of this is said in the production; but all of it is so vividly implied by this casting, the direction, and the subtle looks, raised eyebrows, and sudden head turns here and there.

Kudos must go to Kuo-Hau Lo for the stunning, spacious flat he has created, complete with built-ins, fireplace, nooks, and crannies appropriate for an upscale, refurbished apartment in the Big Apple.  Well-placed pictures and memory-filled items fill the shelves, walls, and semi-seen hallways that Prop Designer Daniel Yelen has so aptly created – many of which provide non-scripted explanations and stories all their own.  Beautiful, shadowed lighting by Robert Hahn and costumes that accentuate the personalities of each character complete the overall effect that is fascinating to behold.

One final note:  As he seems oft to do, Terrence McNally does insert into this script some historical commentary and messaging that as times seems to go on a bit too long and become almost preachy in tone.  While certainly there is much to remember and say about those horrid years when AIDS ravaged the gay community and was ignored by so many, Mr. McNally’s characters vividly tell that story and where the world has progressed for gays twenty years later just by who they are.

Taking a recent Broadway hit and making it different enough for new meanings and interpretations, New Conservatory Theatre Center brings to the stage a compelling Mothers and Sons that should generate much conversation and live on in audience memories as an outing well worthwhile.

Rating: 4 E

Mothers and Sons continues through April 3, 2016 on the Ed Decker stage of New Conservatory Theatre, 25 Van Ness Street, San Francisco.  Tickets are available at or by calling the box office at 415-861-8972.

Photos Credit:  Lois Tema


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