MOTHERS AND SONS by Terrance McNally
Vermont Stage 2016
The intimate 130-seat Flynn Space at the Flynn Center for Performing Arts was a perfect venue for the intermission-less four character Terrance McNally play. The play centers on the conflict between Cal, a middle aged gay man, and Katherine, the mother of Cal’s deceased lover, who died from AIDS in the late 1990s. Katherine’s unwillingness to accept her son as a gay man when he was alive and her refusal to acknowledge Cal as her son’s partner serve as the emotional backstory to the current action. The play spans ninety-eight minutes in perpetual present time when Katherine, unannounced, arrives at the Manhattan home of Cal, his younger husband Will, and their 6 yea-old son, Bud.
Having lived through the AIDS crisis of the 1980s and 1990s, and having lost many close friends and colleagues, I felt an instant connection and understanding of the given circumstances and the positions of the characters. I felt a special connection to Cal, the central character, which allowed me to focus on his journey and calculate the other relationships and dramatic action in service of his emotional and psychological path toward the play’s climax. The play is highly naturalistic, but must be both convincing and dramatic, and lead to a plausible resolution between Cal and Katherine. The material provided a perfect opportunity to work deeply with actors on a thoroughly realistic and immediate approach: objectives, super-objectives, motivations, wants, needs, emotional memories, and the psychologies of their characters.
Because of the intimate performance space, I focused on complete naturalism. Working with the capable actors that I had cast, our goal was to make the audience feel as if they were actually in Cal’s Manhattan living room, witnessing private exchanges between the characters. Having a deep understanding of the history and context for the characters, my practical research for the show was initially focused on creating the physical space. Thus, the scenic design was the primary design focus at the outset. I traveled to New York City and visited every friend, friend of friend, and acquaintance who lived in the kind of building that I knew Cal and Will lived in. I took pictures and conducted research on the history, floor plans, interiors, and furnishing for pre-war apartment buildings in New York City. I shared images with the scenic designer and oversaw the creation of a completely realistic space that reflected the lives of the Cal, Will and Bud: photos from vacations in Vermont (We staged exterior photos of the actors and framed them), favorite toys that Bud collected, books (Will is a writer and appreciates literature), art work, souvenirs, a fireplace (referred to in the script), and the style of furnishing these contemporary urban gay men would have in their home; these items compromised the scenic elements. We concentrated on detail and composition: the pebble moss color of the interior walls, the map of Paris over the shelf unit, the panes of glass above the double door entrance to the living room. Key to the domestic atmosphere is the fact that the play takes place just a few days before the Christmas holiday, and Bud, the son, is eager to decorate the tree that night. A full sized realistic Christmas tree was placed at the stage right corner of the set. Stage management added pine flavored scents to the tree throughout the run, so the audience house right had an added sensorial experience of being inside the apartment.
Approaching the costume design, I was very specific about the clothes for the adult men. Cal, a financial advisor, was a bit more conservative than Will, the creative writer. Their son Bud’s clothes were informed by the current trends in upper west side clothing for children. I pulled images from the internet to communicate the flavor and color pallet for Katherine and shared these with the costume designer. The predominance of fashions for middle aged women were initially either too frumpy or too matronly. Katherine is from New York state but lived most of her adult life as a middleclass mother in Dallas. She’s restrained and tasteful and she cares about the appearance of status. The costume designer and I ultimately chose a tasteful black skirt and a deep maroon blouse with an exaggerated collar. The costume reflected Katherine as a woman of means, wearing a saturated color appropriate for the holiday season.
Lighting cues were key but subtle. We designed cues to represent the natural light in the space going from dusk at the beginning of the play, to night at the play’s conclusion. Actors turned on incandescent light sources throughout the show as their evening drew on. At one significant moment near the end of the piece, Bud plugged in the Christmas tree lights, offering a sweet theatrical moment that underscored the emotional vibration of the characters’ relationships. The opening and closing of the play, however offered non-realistic highly stylized lighting cues. At the top, lights and music faded up on Katherine gazing out the window toward the Central Park location where fifteen years before she attended her son’s memorial. We also created non-realistic lighting cues at the end of the play, when Bud professes his friendship for Katherine and welcomes her into his family as the music from Katherine’s son’s memorial washes over her, offering hope and redemption.