Boulevard’s ‘Mothers and sons’ provides an up close look at gay marriage

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Published Nov. 19, 2018

“Mothers and Sons,” a staged reading presented by Boulevard Theatre, is what every person wanting to better understand gay relationships should see.

Directed by Mark Bucher, the show invites the audience into a cozy space at Plymouth Church on the East Side, where the four actors perform in front of the fireplace. It doesn’t take long before the audience is riveted to the quartet, feeling its members’ array of emotions, at times laughing, at others wanting to come up and put a comforting arm around their shoulders. While this is a “reading,” the actors rarely refer to their pages on metal stands, which become oblivious to the audience as the show progresses.

Written by Terrence McNally, the 90-minute play, presented without intermission, tackles all sorts of questions and issues that get tossed at the gay community. In this show, they’re hurled by the intolerant judgmental mother of Andre, who died of AIDS 20 years earlier. Carefully, respectfully, intelligently, McNally addresses those questions. The cast of Mark Neufang, Nathan Marinan, Joan End and Pamela Stace honors the script with the same care, respect and intelligence. And the audience leaves with a better understanding of the LGBTQ community.

The play is set in 2014 in an apartment overlooking Central Park in New York City.

Katherine pops in on Cal, Andre’s partner at the time of his death, who has married Will. The two have a 7-year-old son, Bud. Now a widow, Katherine still carries her anger at Cal and gays like a heavy axe.

Joan End plays Katherine in Boulevard Theatre’s staged reading of “Mothers and Sons.”

Joan End plays Katherine in Boulevard Theatre’s staged reading of “Mothers and Sons.”

Katherine is as cold as ice toward Cal, who tries to be welcoming to his uninvited guest while Will and Bud are at the park.  Like many of her generation, she peppers Cal with all sorts of insults. “He (Andre) wasn’t gay when he came to New York,” she insists. Retorts Cal, “I didn’t make Andre gay.”

Later on, she tells him the reason she came to see him. It wasn’t for closure. It was for “revenge.” She blames Cal for turning her only child gay and resents his new life.

“Why did your life get better after Andre died and mine got worse?” she wonders.

Organically, McNally covers questions people might have about a gay relationship. When he calls Will his “husband,” Katherine says to Cal, “How easily you say that word.” Cal tells her how hard it was to first describe Will that way. In the Cal role, Neufang humorously recounts those instances with awkward stuttering of the word. But he explains how “boyfriend” (too young), “partner” (too law firm) and “lover” (too illicit) just didn’t fit. “The word ‘spouse’ makes me queasy,” he adds.

There’s a discussion of the roles of the male parents. Will explains that he’s a novelist, works at home and cares for Bud more than Cal, who works in finance and provides very well for the family.

Mark Neufang plays Cal in Boulevard Theatre’s stage reading of “Mothers and Sons.”

Mark Neufang plays Cal in Boulevard Theatre’s stage reading of “Mothers and Sons.”

Katherine asks Will and Cal what they’re going to tell Bud when he asks where he came from. Will is straightforward, saying they used his sperm – since he’s 15 years younger than Cal – and a lesbian friend agreed to carry the child. Perhaps at that point a discussion of the mother’s role could have taken place, but there were plenty of other topics to tackle.

Those topics include the AIDS crisis, which Will addresses, telling Katherine to “try to respect Cal’s loss” and adding “We lost a whole generation of young men (to AIDS).” He muses, sadly, that what happened to young, gay men – many at the cusp of greatness -- at the end of the 20th century will become only a footnote in history.

Yet, Will revels in his new life, which would not have been possible 20 years earlier. “It’s so joyful being a parent,” he says. And McNally shows this as Will and Cal tend to Bud, guiding him through the relationship of the guest in their midst, describing his bathtub antics and attempts to get kitchen treats. McNally tells us – and he shows us – that Will and Cal are like any other parents, that Bud is just fine and will continue to be … just fine. Never mind that Katherine looks askance when Will, jokingly, says, “We’re raising him to be gay.”

Nathan Marinan plays Will in Boulevard Theatre’s staged reading of “Mothers and Sons.”

Nathan Marinan plays Will in Boulevard Theatre’s staged reading of “Mothers and Sons.”

The final conversation, in which Cal and Katherine read for the first time from Andre’s journal, brings out—from both--feelings  trapped in deep, dark crevices of their beings for 20 years. Katherine confesses she was just looking for a way out of her small, poor New York town when she married and moved to Texas (which state she’s grown to scorn). She has wallowed so deep in her misery she can’t see any light. Cal explains his own grief, how it felt like “a betrayal of Andre” when he married Will eight years after Andre passed, imagining what life would be like if Andre, a gifted actor, would still be around. “There might be a Tony Award on the mantel,” he muses.

He rails at Katherine for her intolerance. “You should have held me at his funeral,” he tells her.

It is little Bud who helps the adults clear away the clutter of misconceptions, telling Katherine, “You’re cool. I like you.”

And in the end, it’s a simple gesture of milk and Oreo cookies that makes everyone see just how simple life should be.

What a powerful, emotional presentation this is. Bucher has brought together four actors  that are fully invested in their characters. As Katherine, End is marvelous, a joy to watch, as she travels the furthest in this journey and experiences the start of a transformation, which in real time probably would have taken months, or even years. Having endured years of societal misunderstanding of the LGTBQ community, her biases are entrenched. End truly transforms – she is taciturn, even rude at the start. Her voice has an edge, a sharpness that clearly shows her dislike of Cal, while her bearing is haughty. Her emotions run the gamut as she later muses about her past, her secrets, her own failings—and everything softens: her face, her voice, her being. She has such a subtle, deft way about turning a phrase into a light moment. When she’s looking at a photo of Andre that Cal has given her, she remarks, “Oh, a woman! How’d YOU get in there, sweetie?”

And at the end, the aforementioned simple act brings her to a new understanding of family.

Neufang and Marinan are simply superb as the gay couple. They try to control their exasperation at the stereotypes and mean-spirited questions they’ve had to endure through the years, and now again with Katherine in their midst. Neufang’s Cal has to battle Katherine the most, and their exchanges are seared with emotion and realism. Will and Cal’s arguments also resonate with believability.

Stace (who also serves as Narrator)  gives the seven-year-old Bud a precocious nature, adding all the right, fun notes to this small, but pivotal, character.

It is Bud who makes everyone see how simple life is.

As End suggested in a talkback, the moral of the story is we should simply love one another.

If you go

Who: Boulevard Theatre

What: “Mothers and Sons”

When: Through Nov. 25

Where: Plymouth Church, 2717 E. Hampshire, Milwaukee