Review: Mothers and Sons (Northlight Theatre)

| February 19, 2016

Cindy Gold and Jeff Parker in Mothers and Sons, Northlight Theatre Skokie          

Mothers and Sons

Written by Terrence McNally 
North Shore Center for Performing Arts (map)
thru Feb 28  |  tix: $25-$79  | more info
Check for half-price tickets 


Meaty, but undercooked


Jeff Parker, Benjamin Sprunger, Ben Miller and Cindy Gold, Northlight

Northlight Theatre presents
Mothers and Sons

Review by John Olson

Terrence McNally may be the most successful openly gay playwright alive, and while his successes have included mainstream pieces like Master Class and Ragtime, he’s frequently written gay characters and has authored one of the most definitive plays of the AIDS crisis. His 1995 play Love! Valor! Compassion!, which swept New York’s theater awards, followed the lives of eight gay men over the course of one summer and dealt with the impact of the disease on a personal level. His much less successful 1997 Off-Broadway play Some Men, told interconnected stories of gay men over an 80 year span. Thus, McNally is a chronicler of gay male history and this play, which ran on Broadway in the spring of 2014 and takes place in the present, continues McNally’s treatment of gay history in the US. His premise is a fascinating one and well worth exploring. While the legal and social environment has improved immensely for gays and lesbians since 1995 – at least for affluent gay men like his characters in Mothers and Sons what scars have been left by the AIDS crisis? And not just the damage to gay men who survived the crisis but also the family members of those who lost sons and brothers to the disease.

Ben Miller, Benjamin Sprunger and Jeff Parker in Mothers and SonsIn Mothers and Sons, Cal Porter, who lost his lover Andre Gerard sometime around 1994 when the two of them were 29 years old, is now 49 and legally married to the 34-year-old Will Ogden. Cal seems to have moved on and has essentially “replaced” his lost life partner with a new one. Andre’s mother Katherine shows up unexpectedly at Cal and Will’s Central Park West co-op on Manhattan’s Upper West Side, and though she’s had no contact with Cal since Andre’s funeral 20 years earlier, she’s filled with resentment that while one lover can be replaced by another one, there’s no replacing a lost child. Cal doesn’t see it that way, exactly. McNally establishes that Cal waited nine years after Andre’s death before beginning to date again and Cal continues to cherish the memory of Andre in spite of his loving marriage to Will. Even so – or perhaps more so by McNally’s making Cal a devoted widower of Andre as well as faithful and loving husband to Will – it’s a valid question. What of the surviving family members of AIDS victims – not only including, but especially including those who (like the play’s Katherine) were not accepting of their son’s homosexuality and have not had the support of the LGBT community in their grief?

Cal never had much contact with Katherine as Andre had kept most of the details of his gay lifestyle and relationship to Cal a secret from his parents. Additionally, as is revealed in the 90-minute intermission-less play, there were other sources of conflict between Andre and Katherine that kept mother and son apart. So, it’s defensible that Cal made no effort to include Katherine in his life. Katherine shares the greater share of blame for not reaching out to Cal over those 20 years. Now, with the death of her husband some months earlier, Katherine has found herself completely alone – without family or even friends (she admits she’s unlikable) – and still grieving the loss of her only child. McNally may be asking if the community hasn’t failed the families of those who fell to AIDS. Do we sufficiently acknowledge their grief and reach out to those family members? Is it even possible to reach out to those who were prejudiced against us to begin with and may remain so? Or is it simply their loss for letting their biases isolate them?

Cindy Gold and Benjamin Sprunger in Mothers and Sons, Northlight Benjamin Sprunger, Ben Miller and Jeff Parker in Mothers and Sons

These are great questions and we can thank McNally for raising them, but the play in which he does so is flawed and, frankly, a little bit lazy. Cal and Will are such exemplary modern gay men as to feel unreal or at best, uninteresting. Cal gave up on the acting career he shared with Andre and became a money manager, proving to be so good at it; he can afford a Central Park West co-op – and one with a view of the park at that! He supports Will, who’s an aspiring novelist and stay-at-home dad to the 6-year-old son they conceived through artificial insemination of an embryo into a Lesbian friend. They’re politically correct and good parents and seemingly never make mistakes. While one can understand why McNally will write about gay men like himself – successful, affluent New York intelligentsia – his self-styled role as chronicler of American gay male history makes it fair to criticize him for not acknowledging the differences in circumstances for so many LGBT people across the country. Or apart from that, just make Will and Cal into more interesting characters – with flaws, unrealized hopes or something?

Cindy Gold and Jeff Parker in Mothers and Sons, Northlight TheatreThen there’s Katherine. By far, she’s the most intriguing person in the play. But what is she exactly? Is she to be blamed for her homophobia, or for her lengthy marriage to a man she didn’t love? Was she a controlling and possessive mother who resented above all her loss of control over Andre? McNally shows her to be all of these things and it’s far more baggage than he would have needed to explain her separation from Andre; and after Andre’s death, from Cal. We’re never quite sure how to feel about Katherine, but as she’s the only character with any nuance in the play, we want to feel something.

McNally also jams a few too many themes in the play. There’s the issue of the age difference between Cal and Will, including but not exclusively the generation gap between those who lived through the AIDS crisis and those gay men who grew up and came out in less repressive times. Cal and Will acknowledge the epidemic in terms that may be worth repeating but in ways that we’ve heard before. Still, this playwright can write good, realistic-sounding and funny dialogue and we can enjoy it along with the fine performances here. McNally’s script is delivered with skill by Cindy Gold as Katherine, Jeff Parker as Cal, Benjamin Sprunger as Will and the young Ben Miller as the six-year-old son Bud. Under Steve Scott’s sure direction, the funny lines land and the performances feel natural and organic.

McNally’s heart is in the right place, and ultimately he suggests that the survivors need to, ought to and can support each other in their grief as a family. Mothers and Sons is a valuable play for giving voice to the survivors that have been neglected and urging compassion, but it’s a frustrating one in the way it oversimplifies some issues and under-explores others.

Rating: ★★★

Mothers and Sons continues through February 28th at North Shore Center for the Performing Arts, 9501 Skokie Blvd. (map), with performances Wednesdays 1pm & 7:30pm, Thursdays 7:30pm, Fridays 8pm, Saturdays 2:30pm & 8pm, Sundays 2:30pm & 7pm.  Tickets are $25-$79, and are available by phone (847-673-6300) or online through their website (check for half-price tickets at More information at time: 1 hour 30 minutes, no intermission)

Benjamin Sprunger, Jeff Parker, Ben Miller and Cindy Gold

Photos by Michael Brosilow 




Cindy Gold (Katherine Gerard), Ben Miller (Bud Ogden-Porter), Jeff Parker (Cal Porter), Benjamin Sprunger (Will Ogden)

behind the scenes

Steve Scott (director), Jack Magaw (scenic design), Heather Gilbert (lighting design), Christopher Kriz (original music & sound design), Rita Vreeland (production stage manager, casting director), Rachel Lambert (costume design), Charlie Marie McGrath (assistant director), Lauren Shouse (dramaturg), Aimee Plant (properties master), John Carlin (production assistant), Shannon Higgins (costume supervisor), Michael Brosilow (photos)


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Category: 2016 Reviews, John Olson, North Shore Center for the Arts, Northlight Theatre, Terrence McNally, Video, YouTube

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