Raleigh Little Theatre’s “Season of Discovery” continues with its first City Series show, Mothers and Sons, staged in the Gaddy-Goodwin Teaching Theatre. This one-act drama by American playwright Terrence McNally opened on Broadway in March of 2014, under the direction of Sheryl Kaller, who also directed the show’s New Hope, PA premiere one year prior. The play closed in June of 2014 after 33 previews and 104 performances and regional and international productions followed. Mothers and Sons received a Drama League Award nomination for Best Production and a Tony Award® nomination for Best Play.
McNally is best known for writing hit plays The Ritz (1975), Frankie and Johnny in the Clair de Lune (1982), Lips Together, Teeth Apart (1991), Love! Valour! Compassion! (1994), Master Class (1995), and Corpus Christi (1998), as well as the libretti and/or books for hit musicals Kiss of the Spider Woman (1992), Ragtime (1996), The Full Monty (2000), and Catch Me If You Can (2011).
Mothers and Sons is a 20-year follow-up to McNally’s 1990 PBS teleplay Andre’s Mother, which was, itself, an expansion of a short Manhattan Theatre Club vignette he wrote in 1988. In this new play, a woman pays an unexpected visit to the New York apartment of her late son’s former partner, now a married father. Scotch and hearts are poured out, and old wounds are reopened.
In RLT guest director Timothy E. Locklear’s stellar production, those wounds are opened slowly and delicately, with surgical precision. Locklear has assembled an accomplished production team, whose work lends an important dose of realism to this Central Park West apartment.
Scenic designer Joncie Sarratt has constructed a beautiful and detailed static set, complete with character-specific set dressing (children’s books, Broadway musical posters, etc.), with well-integrated props by Chris Acevedo. The general coziness and warmth of the home contrasts nicely with the coldness of the mother character, who immediately seems out-of-place.
Thomas Mauney’s lighting is naturalistic, with light seemingly coming from either interior sources or through the enormous front-facing window, a concept sold with great help from the actors on stage. The subtle, perfect, shift from afternoon to evening is practically undetectable. In a story told in a single scene, costuming must be even more detailed than usual. Jenny Mitchell uses style and fitting to clearly define the varied ages of these four characters, and uses color to amplify personality.
RLT veteran and seven-time Cantey Award winner Rebecca Johnston leads the show as the shrewish Katharine Gerard. Johnston holds her cards very close, giving the tiniest glimpses at her hand, and her character’s true self, as the show slowly progresses. Johnston finds a delicate balance between sternness and humanity, careful not to let one outweigh the other. Her performance is nuanced and powerful, and she works hard to help keep the audience on board during McNally’s overly long final 15 minutes.
Locklear is lucky to have Brian Westbrook playing the no-nonsense Cal Porter. Always able to play any age — and any role for that matter — a little hair coloring and smart costuming was all that was needed to help sell Westbrook as 15 years older than his husband. Westbrook stays miles away from cliché, opting for an honest and grounded portrayal of the play’s most conflicted character. He is relatable and sympathetic, and has well-developed, unique interactions with each fellow actor.
Cantey Award winner Chris Maxwell bursts with energy and warmth into the middle of the play as Will Ogden. Between his youthful demeanor and costuming, we instantly buy him as a good deal younger than Westbrook, though their ages cannot be too far apart. Maxwell can deliver much with no more than a single glance. He stares daggers into Katharine, and the audience sympathizes with his plight most of all.
Though at first Maxwell’s delivery felt false, it became quickly evident that the Will that spoke to Katherine in front of their son is entirely different from the Will whom we meet when the boy is absent. It was a bold choice, and ended up paying off. Maxwell appears to connect strongly with the young actor playing his son, and they share an active enthusiasm.
Last, but certainly not least, is Andrew Farmer as six-year-old Bud Ogden-Porter. Already looking older than his 10 years, Farmer is too old for the part. However, given the intensity of the subject matter, as well as the acting demands, an actor of Farmer’s age is an appropriate casting choice. Farmer plays the part with curiosity and intelligence. Combine those traits with a strong sense of stage presence, and you have a young actor that we hope to see more from in the future.
With an accomplished cast and a beautiful script in his pockets, Tim Locklear has created a nuanced show that digs deep into Terrence McNally’s text without getting lost in the politics or the squabbles. He puts loss and redemption at the forefront, keeping this from being “A Play About AIDS” or “A Play About Gay Marriage. ” His direction is not showy, but puts the playwright first, as good directors do. The only flaw is in McNally’s script: the play goes on a bit too long, especially for a one-act. Characters start to repeat themselves, and a sense of impatience grows during the final 15 minutes.
This show is in PG-13 territory for language, emotional intensity, and frank conversations about sex and sexuality.
SECOND OPINION: Sept. 26th Raleigh, NC News & Observer review by Roy C. Dicks: http://www.newsobserver.com/entertainment/arts-culture/article104318746.html and Sept. 3rd mini-preview by Linda Haac, Roy C. Dicks, David Menconi, and Mary Cornatzer: http://www.newsobserver.com/entertainment/arts-culture/article99092812.html; Sept. 21st Durham, NC Indy Week mini-preview by Byron Woods: http://www.indyweek.com/indyweek/mothers-and-sons/Event?oid=5066225; and Sept. 16th Raleigh, NC Arts Now video preview by Caroline Caldwell: http://www.artsnownc.com/preview-mothers-sons-raleigh-little-theatre/ and Sept. 7th guest blog post by RLT guest director Timothy E. Locklear: http://www.artsnownc.com/director-mothers-and-sons-at-rlt-seeped-into-my-soul/. (Note: To read Triangle Arts and Entertainment’s online version of the Sept. 26th Triangle Review review by Kurt Benrud: http://triangleartsandentertainment.org/2016/09/rlts-mothers-and-sons-is-a-riveting-drama-laced-with-humor-and-some-tender-moments/.
PRESENTER: http://www.raleighlittletheatre.org/, https://www.facebook.com/RaleighLittleTheatre, https://twitter.com/RLT1936, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Raleigh_Little_Theatre, and http://www.youtube.com/user/raleighlittletheatre.
NOTE 2: There will be a post-show conversation after the Thursday, Sept. 29th, performance. RLT guest director by Timothy E. Locklear will serve as moderator for a panel that includes Keep Singing: Two Mothers, Two Sons, and Their Fight Against Jesse Helms co-author Patsy Clarke, LGBT Center of Raleigh executive director James Miller, and North Carolina AIDS Action Network executive director Lee Storrow.
NOTE 3: Arts Access, Inc. of Raleigh will audio-describe the show’s 3 p.m. Sunday, Oct. 2nd, performance.
Mothers and Sons (2013 Bucks County Playhouse and 2014 Broadway play): http://www.dramatists.com/cgi-bin/db/single.asp?key=5003 (Dramatists Play Service, Inc.), https://www.ibdb.com/broadway-production/mothers-and-sons-495880 (Internet Broadway Database), https://www.facebook.com/MothersSonsBway/ (Facebook page), https://twitter.com/motherssonsbway (Twitter page), and https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mothers_and_Sons_%28play%29 (Wikipedia).
The Script: http://books.google.com/ (Google Books).
Study Guide: https://www.artistsrep.org/assets/PDF/Mothers-and-Sons-Study-Guide.pdf (Artists Repertory Theatre of Portland. OR).
Terrence McNally (St. Petersburg, FL-born playwright and screenwriter): http://www.terrencemcnally.com/ (official website), https://www.ibdb.com/broadway-cast-staff/terrence-mcnally-8828 (Internet Broadway Database), http://www.imdb.com/name/nm0573645/ (Internet Movie Database), https://www.facebook.com/Terrence-McNally-316683221748870/ (Facebook page), and https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Terrence_McNally (Wikipedia).
Timothy E. Locklear (Wake Forest, NC director): http://www.abouttheartists.com/artists/492075-timothy-e-locklear (About the Artists) and https://www.facebook.com/telock335 (Facebook page).
Dustin K. Britt is a Triangle native, holds a master’s degree in special education from East Carolina University, and teaches locally. He can be spotted all over the Triangle area either painting scenery or chewing o n it. He has received local theater award nominations for doing both. He is a devoted cinephile and author of Hold the Popcorn, a movie blog on Facebook. Click here to read his reviews for Triangle Review and Triangle Arts and Entertainment He can also be found via his official Facebook page and on Twitter @dkbritt85.