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Theatre Review: "Mothers & Sons" at Playhouse

A friend of mine calls Mothers and Sons, continuing through April 17 at Playhouse in the Park’s Thompson Shelterhouse, ”speeches in search of a play.” That’s what I call it, too.

Middle-aged widow Katharine (Stephanie Berry) arrives unannounced and completely out-of-the-blue at the Central Park West apartment of Cal (Alvin Keith). (The stage design looks like Anywhere, USA except for the telescope at the window, suggesting a view.)

Her late son Andre, a rising actor, died of AIDS almost 20 years ago. She blames Cal, Andre’s decent, surviving partner, because her son was certainly never gay until he came to New York. (Uh-huh.) Katharine has nurtured her pain and bitterness and homophobia for two decades and now she’s come all the way from Dallas to share.

Cal mourned then moved on with his life, finding a hunky new love (Ben Cherry) a few years later. Together they are raising their child (Austin Vaughan). Katharine is enraged about that, too.

There’s lots of yelling, and recriminations and repeating, and, worst of all, preaching. Director Timothy Douglas’ production is tone-deaf, and he steers Berry into a one-note performance, the last thing Mothers and Sons needs.

Katharine talks a lot about her faults. She knows she’s difficult and friendless. She spews venom freely. It’s a role that demands great nuance or all you have is a loathsome woman -- and the giant question of why Cal doesn’t hand her her fur coat and show her the door.

Katharine should be poking at here psyche, having a journey in this small living room. Berry’s Katharine stands proud of her faults. It up-ends what should be a chance for closure for Cal. The performance doesn’t connect the way it must and that makes much of the one-act tiresome and the ending beyond credulity.

Mothers and Sons is taken seriously, I suppose, because playwright Terrence McNally has won four Tony Awards for work including Love! Valour! Compassion! He won us over a generation ago with tender, pointed, funny, angry, sometimes messy always courageous plays about the gay experience. When he was at his best, he wrote what he knew – a life in the theater.

The specter of AIDS was ever-present, real or symbolic. They were (and are) plays that demanded we invest our minds and our hearts.

That isn’t what Mothers and Sons is. It’s speeches in search of a play.

It’s easy to see why McNally needed to write about these issues. This is a memorial of sorts. He was there, he was writing it as it happened. He had to look back at what was and see how it fits today.

In Mothers and Sons he writes that the diagnosis of AIDS was a death sentence. And that’s what awareness seems to be today. “First it was a chapter in a history book, then a paragraph, then a footnote.”

There’s definitely a play there. Mothers and Sons isn’t it.

Playhouse artistic director Blake Robinson owes a huge apology to everyone in the opening night audience. He kept them waiting for 15 minutes while he did his pre-show bit for the sold-out To Kill a Mockingbird. If he’s running this late, show some consideration, LET SOMEBODY ELSE DO THE PRE-SHOW. The audience deserves better than this.

Mothers and Sons, March 18-April 17. Playhouse in the Park, Eden Park. 7:30 p.m. Tuesday-Thursday, 8 p.m. Friday, 4 p.m. and 8 p.m. Saturday, and 2 p.m. and 7 p.m. Sunday. Tickets $35-$86 and subject to change; $30-$45 children, teens and students in advance. 513-421-3888 and www.cincyplay.com.

Review by Jackie Demaline, RCN Arts
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