Arts & Theater

AIDS, death and the modern family take center stage in STC's 'Mothers and Sons'

Miller Traum and Lori Russo in Sacramento Theatre Company's "Mothers and Sons."
Miller Traum and Lori Russo in Sacramento Theatre Company's "Mothers and Sons."

Andre Gerard was a handsome aspiring actor who enjoyed Shakespeare and Mozart, made many friends, was attracted to people with a vibrant sense of humor and was in a loving, six-year-long gay relationship when he was consumed by AIDS at the young age of 29.

Andre is at the center of Sacramento Theatre Company’s heart-wrenching production of “Mothers and Sons,” and yet he never appears on stage. The audience never sees him or hears him. But we get to know Andre intimately because of master storyteller Terrence McNally’s lyrical script and the visceral, empathetic performances of the actors who play Andre’s mother and onetime partner.

McNally is among American theatre’s greatest living contemporary playwrights, having won four Tony awards in the 1990s – two for plays and two for musicals. Since then, he’s been nominated three more times, including a 2014 nomination for “Mothers and Sons.”

With “Mothers and Sons,” McNally has created a formidable triangle of love, anger, disappointment, resentment and forgiveness, with lots of sharp angles and sharp dialogue complemented by passionate performances. This play, like many others inspired by the global AIDS epidemic of the 1980s, addresses the havoc that AIDS wreaks on its victims and society.

But “Mothers and Sons” is more tightly focused as a family affair. It questions what constitutes a modern family today, what it means to be part of a family and what are our obligations to our families. Andre’s mother, Katharine, and his long-ago lover, Cal, are joined in the storytelling by Cal’s now-husband of 11 years, Will, and their 6-year-old son, Bud.

The play, set in New York City on a cold winter day in 2014, opens with Katharine paying a very unexpected visit to Cal and Will’s comfortable apartment on Manhattan’s Central Park West that offers a stunning view of the park. Katharine and Cal have not seen each other in many years. Neither really wants to see each other, but Katharine has come looking for some answers.

Set designer Timothy McNamara has built the faux parquet floor of Cal and Will’s apartment floor to the very front of the first row of seats in Sacramento Theatre’s more intimate Pollock Stage. The effect is transformational: audience members feel they are actually in the apartment with the characters, eavesdropping uncomfortably on their conversations rather than watching from a comfortable distance.

Lori Russo, making her Sacramento Theatre debut, is frigid and rigid as the uptight, upper crust Katharine. Costume designer Jessica Minnihan has Katharine decked out just right: a long black coat with fur collar and matching black pumps with little bows on the toes. Katharine’s hands are firmly clamped like vice grips onto her matching black handbag.

Casey McClellan is painfully nervous as Cal, struggling to make small talk about the city, the view, the apartment – whatever – while repeatedly offering Katharine a seat and offering to take her coat. "No. No. And no," she responds curtly. She says she won’t be staying long – but she does.

For the next intense 90 minutes – this play is presented in one act with no intermission in “real time,” meaning there are no blackouts or scene changes – Katharine and Cal, joined on stage at times by Will (Cole Winslow) and Bud (Miller Traum), spar and parry over the truth of Andre’s life and death, who loved and care more for Andre, and who has suffered more from his passing.

“He was barely 18 when he left Texas,” Katharine says at one point. “That’s too young to come to a city like New York.”

“As a young gay man, he didn’t feel comfortable where he was,” Cal responds.

Katharine: “Andre wasn’t gay when he came to New York.”

Cal: “OK.”

Katharine needs to find out who “made” Andre gay and who “gave” him AIDS. She has her sights set on Cal. To Katharine’s dismay, Cal has moved on from her son into another relationship, another family. Emotions escalate at a rapid pace, and then deflate, only to happen all over again.

“Why did your life get better after Andre and mine got worse?” she asks Cal. “Why haven’t you been punished.”

A forceful Will comes to his husband’s defense: “Try to respect Cal’s [loss]. He lost more than your son. He lost a generation. People who might have mattered. Hamlets. Nureyevs. Melvilles and Whitmans … I think people like Cal have been punished enough, Mrs. Gerard.”

The hope for this fractious family comes in the form of young Bud, played by the adorable, precocious 10-year-old Traum. Bud, being raised by two dads, doesn’t need or want a mother. But he does want a grandma, and wonders out loud if Katharine might want the job.

How will this family fare? It’s unclear. But this play does end with a late-night snack of milk and cookies. That’s a good sign.

Mitchel Benson is The Bee’s theater critic and a freelance writer. Contact him at mdbenson007@gmail.com.

'Mothers and Sons'

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What: The Sacramento premiere of Tony-award winning playwright Terrence McNally’s story about a mother coming to grips with her son’s death and his onetime lover and his new family. Directed by Bill Zarriello.

Where: Sacramento Theatre Company, Pollock Stage, 1419 H St.,Sacramento

When: 7 p.m. Wednesdays and Thursdays; 8 p.m. Fridays; 2 p.m. and 8 p.m. Saturdays; and 2 p.m. Sundays. Through April 30.

Cost: $15-$38, discounts available for students, seniors and military.

Information: 916-443-6722 or tickets.sactheatre.org

Running time: About 90 minutes, with no intermission

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