THERE'S A troubling sense of the all-too-familiar in Artist Repertory Theatre's adaptation of Terrence McNally's Tony Award-nominated Mothers and Sons. A promising young man, Andre, has died of AIDS. His family and friends are devastated. His mother, an unfulfilled, unhappy woman, has never accepted her son's identity as a gay man, and, unable to let go of her disapproval, cannot come to terms with his passing. To many an audience member, such circumstances will be excruciatingly recognizable.
To fans of McNally, these characters will also be familiar. He explored their fraught relationships in Andre's Mother, a 1988 short play later adapted into a screenplay, which takes place at Andre's memorial service. Mothers and Sons picks up 20 years later. It opens to Andre's mother, Katherine Gerard, standing bewildered in the affluent, modern Manhattan apartment where Cal, her deceased son's former lover, now lives with a husband and son. Cal's life has gone on. Hers has not. She lingers, confronting Cal, but also her own resentment and hostility. A messy, emotionally charged, 90-minute conversation ensues.
Katherine's refusal to accept her son is representative of a culture that, Cal says, believed that gay people did not "deserve the dignity of marriage" and so created the conditions under which AIDS could flourish. Cal's husband later says he feels that what happened to gay men at the end of the 20th century is treated like a mere chapter in a book that will soon be a page, a paragraph, and finally a footnote. This play works against that erasure.
But I wish it felt less familiar. These stories, though perhaps commonplace, deserve better than the same, tired old storytelling. The production exhibits much that is good: affecting performances by the cast and especially Michael Mendelson as Cal. But narrative devices such as those which bring Katherine to the apartment and keep her there feel contrived, as does the ending, which has the treacly, unearned feeling of a sitcom finale. Moments such as these suggest what I sometimes suspected listening to Cal and Katherine debate: that ultimately they are familiar types, not people.
Mothers and Sons
Artists Repertory Theatre, 1515 SW Morrison, Wed-Sun 7:30 pm and Sun 2 pm, $25-48, through March 6, artistsrep.org