Terrence McNally loves opera. It figures in plays like THE LISBON TRAVIATA and one, MASTER CLASS, even places prima donna assoluta Maria Callas center stage. McNally often appears on the Metropolitan Opera’s Saturday radio broadcasts as a panelist for their delightful “Opera Quiz.” I reference all this because MOTHERS AND SONS (@ SpeakEasy Stage through June 6th) seems to me to be his most operatic script.
A mother has traveled all the way from Texas to New York City for “revenge,” she tells us, not once but twice. Her son, she maintains, was not gay before he came to New York and she wants to know who infected him with AIDS and killed him twenty years ago. Not only does she embrace denial with a vengeance, she foolishly entertains the notion that patient zero might be still alive.
The opera canon is certainly full of characters bent on payback but one jumped across the footlights to me the moment this mother confesses her “real” motivation. The gypsy Acuzena sings not one, but two “revenge” arias in Verdi’s IL TROVATORE because of a dead son. And what ruin she wreaks!
Nancy E. Carroll plays the steely mother from hell who asks outright of her son’s former partner, “Why haven’t you been punished?” Michael Kaye gives an exquisitely wrought performance as the overly patient and impossibly kind man who grieved and found a second chance at love—and who inexplicably doesn’t pitch the woman out on her ear. Carroll’s character has ice in her veins and comic timing in her bones, so that a delayed barb makes us laugh as we’re horrified by her conduct.
McNally crafts a nifty balance between the two and director Paul Daigneault gets top notch performances all around. (There are two more characters, Kaye’s hip, younger husband, portrayed with an edge by Nile Hawver and an adorable son, played with a lot of heart by Liam Lurker). Kaye’s character has a raft of touching speeches about what was lost to the world when its best and brightest were taken in their prime—and Kaye eloquently conveys a lifelong sorrow hiding just below the surface. It’s a lovely turn.
I was reminded of the inappropriate mother in Edward Albee’s THREE TALL WOMEN when Carroll’s character tells Kaye about a liaison she confessed to her son… not to mention her line, “I lost a son: Can I order another?” which had THE MIKADO intruding into my thoughts. All this larger (and much more peculiar) than life behavior kept me interested in how this woman would exact her pound of flesh.
Then McNally makes an about face, abandons the operatic and magically reforms her without any ghosts of Christmas past! He spends a lot of time and effort showing us that this woman is incapable of love (even as she claims her son was the incapable one). I just couldn’t buy the instant milk and cookie reformation.