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RLT’s Mothers and Sons Is a Riveting Drama, Laced with Humor and Some Tender Moments

Raleigh Little Theatre's Sept. 23-Oct. 9 production of <em>Mothers and Sons</em> will star (from left) Chris Maxwell as Will Ogden, Brian Westbrook as Cal Porter, Andrew Farmer as Bud Ogden-Porter, and Rebecca Johnston as Katharine Gerard (photo by Curtis Brown Photography)

Raleigh Little Theatre‘s Sept. 23-Oct. 9 production of Terrence McNally’s Mothers and Sons will star (from left) Chris Maxwell as Will Ogden, Brian Westbrook as Cal Porter, Andrew Farmer as Bud Ogden-Porter, and Rebecca Johnston as Katharine Gerard (photo by Curtis Brown Photography)

NOTE: Pamela Vesper was not able to attend this performance. I was accompanied by Sharon Silcox. Her comments appear at the end of this article. — KB

Mothers and Sons at Raleigh Little Theatre is an intense, riveting drama, laced with humor and some tender moments. When the curtain rises, it has been 20 years since Andre Gerard, a promising 29-year-old gay actor, died at the height of the AIDS epidemic. Playwright Terrence McNally gives us a 90-minute interaction between Andre’s mother and the man who had been his partner for the final 11 years of his life.

Presumably, these two met 20 years ago at the memorial service for her son and his partner and have not seen each other since. Now, unexpectedly, Katharine Gerard (the mother) drops in on Cal Porter (the partner). On this evening, she meets Will Ogden (Cal’s husband) and Bud Ogden-Porter (their son).

Her motive for this visit is really unclear, and one that she herself may not fully understand. She balks at Cal’s every initial gesture of hospitality — she will not take a seat, and she will not let Cal take her coat or get her a drink. After some clumsy, uncomfortable smalltalk, Gerard freely lets her bitter, judgmental nature show.

Rebecca Johnston expertly delivers this woman’s hateful, vitriolic accusations. To Johnston’s credit, however, we do not find ourselves hating her character. Katharine Gerard is a product of an earlier, less enlightened time; and we understand her feelings of loss and betrayal. And even though we don’t agree with such attitudes as “Andre wasn’t gay before he came to New York” and “It’s not a home, it’s an apartment,” we find ourselves (to borrow a phrase) “hating the sin, not the sinner.” Speaking of “sins,” keep an eye out for hopes of redemption as another son reaches out to her and offers a type of communion, a communion involving something other than the traditional bread and wine.

As Cal, Brian Westbrook is also nothing short of brilliant. We sense that he is still haunted by Andre’s ghost; the pain of that loss will not subside. He feels guilty for having “moved on” (even though it was eight years between Andre’s death and his marriage to Will). Cal has lived through the earlier hellish years, and now very much appreciates the improved state-of-the-world. Westbrook gives us a Cal who is quite evidently shaken by Katharine’s diatribe, but manages a controlled response (most of the time, anyway).

Chris Maxwell’s Will is just as engaging. Will is a loving stay-at-home father/husband/writer who is working on the “great American novel.” Even when Will manages to take Katharine’s snubs in stride, Maxwell makes it quite evident that Will has taken offense. And when Will finally responds by lashing back, we do not question his honesty or his motivation. There’s an easy chemistry between Cal and Will, and it is evident that they want to be as progressive as possible. Watch for the “Eskimo” vs. “Inuit” exchange — it is quite revealing on multiple levels.

And we could not ask for better casting than Andrew Farmer as Bud Ogden-Porter. His sense of timing and his ability to stay “in the moment” are developed way beyond what one would expect from such a young actor. There is much more to this character than the “aw, how cute” factor. That is, it is crucial that the character gets developed beyond that, and Farmer delivers in spades.

RLT's <em>Mothers and Sons</em> cast includes (from left) Chris Maxwell as Will Ogden, Brian Westbrook as Cal Porter, Rebecca Johnston as Katharine Gerard, and Andrew Farmer as Bud Ogden-Porter (photo by Elizabeth Anderson)

Raleigh Little Theatre‘s cast for Mothers and Sons by Terrence McNally includes (from left) Chris Maxwell as Will Ogden, Brian Westbrook as Cal Porter, Rebecca Johnston as Katharine Gerard, and Andrew Farmer as Bud Ogden-Porter (photo by Elizabeth Anderson)

This is a story about love and loss. It is also about moving on and failing to move on. Katharine admits to having considered suicide. And the only time she ever manages a laugh is in the wake of her line: “You go to all that trouble to kill yourself, and then they rescue you.”

And, of course, the play is also a chronicle of our changing times, as our societal mores have become less intolerant of “alternative” lifestyles.

A side note: we found ourselves wondering about the choice of the names Will and Bud. Do these names suggest a note of optimism? Is McNally referring to how things “will” be and how things are in the “bud”? Just a thought.

Also: in addition to all of the heavy, dramatic discussion, McNally’s script provides plenty of humor and tenderness, and this cast delivers with aplomb.

Under Timothy E. Locklear’s direction, the play moves forward at a brisk-yet-leisurely pace. And even though there is very little actual “action” called for in the script, Locklear and his actors have infused it with enough properly motivated activity to keep it visually interesting but never overly “busy.” In less capable hands, this script might have been produced as not much more than a static, staged dialogue.

Set designer Joncie Sarratt has provided us with an intricately fleshed-out facsimile of Cal and Will’s upper-class high-rise New York apartment-with-a-view. And, thanks to costume designer Jenny Mitchell, all four characters are dressed in character-specific clothing. Plus, Thomas Mauney’s oh-so-subtle lighting changes keep our attention focused properly.

From the Department of Picky-Picky: After Bud’s lengthy bubble-bath, he returns to the living with absolutely no evidence that he had ever been wet. Perhaps, “messing up” his hair with a damp towel might create this illusion.

Raleigh Little Theatre's community-theater presentation of Terrence McNally's <em>Mothers and Sons</em> stars Rebecca Johnston as Katharine Gerard and Brian Westbrook as Cal Porter (photo by Elizabeth Anderson)

RLT‘s community-theater presentation of Terrence McNally’s Mothers and Sons stars Rebecca Johnston as Katharine Gerard and Brian Westbrook as Cal Porter (photo by Elizabeth Anderson)

Additional Comments by Sharon Silcox:

The play Mothers and Sons by Terrence McNally reminds me of Marc Chagall and his paintings.

Terrence McNally is our Fiddler on the Roof for the evening, stamping out the beats of the story with his feet. There is the strong relentless beat of fear and hate that builds up walls within and around an individual. The light, joyous everyday beats of life; children’s bubble baths and cookies and swings and laughter. Underneath, sometimes hidden and quiet, but always powerful, the beat of love.

Cal and Will are our lovers floating above the city. Cal and Andre are floating above the city, too. The love of these people in the face of pain and hate and death is what gives the canvas of the story all the lyrical colors of life. They imbue the city with bravery even when they are not brave, love in the face of hatred, and compassion for those who fear them.

Finally, the beat of the love of an innocent is what breaks the wall of fear. Children force us to see the truth. They are mirrors; and when we look in their eyes and hear their voices, we see what we have in our hearts and no longer have to hide. We are all the same, floating over this marvelous landscape of earth for a while, reveling in color and music and laughter and love. There are no differences; look in your own mirror and you will see.

Mr. McNally also has a wicked sense of humor.

Terrence McNally's <em>Mothers and Sons</em>, playing Sept. 29-Oct. 2 at Raleigh Little Theatre, stars (from left) Brian Westbrook as Cal Porter, Andrew Farmer as Bud Ogden-Porter, and Chris Maxwell as Will Ogden (photo by Elizabeth Anderson)

Terrence McNally’s Mothers and Sons stars (from left) Brian Westbrook as Cal Porter, Andrew Farmer as Bud Ogden-Porter, and Chris Maxwell as Will Ogden (photo by Elizabeth Anderson)

SECOND OPINION: Sept. 21st Durham, NC Indy Week mini-preview by Byron Woods: http://www.indyweek.com/indyweek/mothers-and-sons/Event?oid=5066225; 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/; and Sept. 3rd Raleigh, NC News & Observer mini-preview by Linda Haac, Roy C. Dicks, David Menconi, and Mary Cornatzer: http://www.newsobserver.com/entertainment/arts-culture/article99092812.html.

Raleigh Little Theatre presents MOTHERS AND SONS at 8 p.m. Sept. 29-Oct. 1, 3 p.m. Oct. 2, 8 p.m. Oct. 6-8, and 3 p.m. Oct. 9 in its Gaddy-Goodwin Teaching Theatre, 301 Pogue St., Raleigh, North Carolina 27607.

TICKETS: $24 ($20 students and seniors 62+). BOX OFFICE: 919-821-3111 or https://raleighlittletheatre.secure.force.com/.

SHOW: http://raleighlittletheatre.org/shows/16-17/mothers.html and https://www.facebook.com/events/1185259951565309/.

2016-17 SEASON: http://raleighlittletheatre.org/tickets/memberships.html.

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.

VENUE: http://raleighlittletheatre.org/tickets/seating.html.

MAPS/DIRECTIONS: http://raleighlittletheatre.org/about/map-directions.html.

PARKING: http://raleighlittletheatre.org/about/parking.html.

NOTE 1: All shows are wheelchair accessible, and assistive-listening devices are available for all shows. RLT has also installed a hearing loop in the Cantey V. Sutton Theatre.

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.

OTHER LINKS:

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).

EDITOR’S NOTE:

Kurt Benrud is a graduate of Cary High School and N.C. State University, and he has taught English at both. He first became involved in local theater in 1980. He has served on the board of directors for both the Cary Players and the Cary Playwrights’ Forum. He is also a volunteer reader with Triangle Radio Reading Service. Click here to read his reviews for Triangle Review and Triangle Arts and Entertainment.

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