A hurting ‘Mother,’ 20 years later

Joel C. Abels saw the original Broadway production of Terrence McNally’s “Mothers and Sons” a few years back, and something about the show — which is about a sharp-tongued, homophobic mother having a tense reunion with her dead son’s former lover — really stuck with him.

“ I knew it was a play that I wanted to produce — a story I wanted to tell,” Abels says.

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Tense reunion: Billy Jack Anderson, as Cal, and Amelia Ryan, as Katharine, in “Mothers and Sons.” Photo / Ron Webb, StageWorks Fresno

The StageWorks Fresno production, which opens Friday, Sept 8, at the Fresno Art Museum’s Bonner Auditorium, is a Fresno premiere.

I talked with Abels, who directs the production, and Amelia Ryan, who plays the mother character, to get more of a feel for the show. Here are 10 things I learned.

1. It’s a sequel, of sorts. In 1990, McNally wrote a film titled “Andre’s Mother” that was broadcast by PBS. The film is set at the Manhattan memorial service for a gay man named Andre Gerard, who died of AIDS. Katharine, his mother, who never accepted her son’s sexuality, cannot share her grief with Cal, her son’s lover.


McNally sets “Mothers and Sons” 20 years later, when Katharine (Ryan) drops in on Cal’s life, unannounced. Cal (played by Billy Jack Anderson) is now married to Will (Logan Cooley), and together they have a son.

McNally was asked if he’d consider adapting “Andre’s Mother” for the stage. Instead, he opted to update the story.

“He thought too much had happened since 1990,” Ryan says. “It would be too dated. Instead, he thought it would be interesting to revisit those characters.”

There’s another major reason McNally wrote the play: “He really wanted to create a vehicle for Tyne Daly in the mother role,” Abels says.

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2. The voice of the playwright is strong. It’s helpful knowing that fact going into the play as an audience member — and also helpful to consider McNally’s literary stature and his outsized impact on our culture’s larger discussions about gay issues over the past decades.

“I think sometimes our characters are just conduits for his opinions,” Ryan says. “And I think he had some things he wanted to get off his chest and take a hard look at how far the gay community has come in the past 20 years.” (“Or, at least, how far it has come for white, monied, Manhattanites especially,” she adds.)

Ryan says there are also some issues McNally was trying to resolve with his own mother. But more on that in a bit.

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3. Logic and human emotions don’t always go hand in hand. When Katharine barges back into Cal’s life, there’s no clear reason why she’s come. The pretext is that her husband has just died, and that she’s in the city anyway, and she also has a diary that belonged to her son that she wants to return to Cal.

“I don’t think my character herself actually knows why she’s there,” Ryan says.

That sense of improvised anger leads to the dramatic tension as Katharine overstays her impromptu visit. Will she manage to find some form of absolution from her son’s former lover, whom she’s treated poorly in the past, or will she be left to simmer in her own indignation? The action is close and tight and plays out in real time, with no intermission.

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4. This is a play for adults, not children. “You know, I am always one to advance that line in terms of children going to shows,” Abels says. “This play, however, is really about a lot of adults talking, not a lot of action and there is the subject matter and a bit of language. So I really wouldn’t recommend it for children.”

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Chameleon: Billy Jack Anderson as Cal in “Mothers and Sons.” Photo / Ron Webb, StageWorks Fresno

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5. Anderson, who plays the other major role of Cal, is a chameleon. At least that’s what Abels calls him. Some of his recent roles: for StageWorks he played a persuasive evangelist in “The Christians” and a closeted transvestite in “Casa Valentina”; and for Good Company Players performed the title role in “The Cripple of Inishmaan.” In all these he brought a robust sense of authenticity to his work on stage.

“He slips into a character and continues to work until he finds all of the nuances of that character,” Abels says.

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6. There’s another familiar StageWorks Fresno face in the cast. Logan Cooley plays Will, Cal’s younger “trophy husband.” (Abels says he gives a “lovely, refreshing performance.”) Don’t be surprised if you recognize Cooley: He’s been in every StageWorks show so far (“The Christians,” “The Full Monty” and now “Mothers and Sons”) this season, and will appear in September’s “Little Shop of Horrors.” He also will be featured in the first show of next season, “The Fantasticks,” keeping his streak alive.

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“I’ve played a lot of mothers, and she’s the worst mother I’ve had to play.” — Amelia Ryan

7. The fourth character is played by two brothers. Arion and Leo Jimesanagnos make their theater debuts alternating the role of Bud, the young son of Cal and Will. (The boys are the sons of Saúl Jiménez-Sandoval, dean of the College of Arts and Humanities at Fresno State, and Mariana Anagnostopoulos, a philosophy professor at the university.) It’s a small but pivotal part, considering that Bud has the last line of the play.

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8. Still, the mother is by far the meatiest role. Ryan describes her character as a narcissist and full of rage. “I’ve played a lot of mothers,” says the veteran actor, “and she’s the worst mother I’ve had to play.” This was, after all, a woman who wasn’t at her son’s bedside when he was dying, something that Ryan finds hard even to imagine.

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Troubled mother: Leo Jimesanagnos, as Bud, and Amelia Ryan, as Katharine, in “Mothers and Sons.” Photo / Ron Webb, StageWorks Fresno

Yet even though McNally makes Katharine a cauldron of anger, Ryan is able to find connections.

“I can relate to this: Sometimes when you’re terribly sad, anger is the only thing that can keep you from feeling how sad you are. When Katharine feels the sadness closing in, she stokes her anger. I haven’t played anyone like her before.”

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9. Now, about those McNally mother issues. Ryan — who started working on the part months ago because of the heavy line load — has spent a lot of time thinking about her character’s disapproval of her son’s sexuality. That rejection is based not on religious beliefs but a more general sense of disgust. She tells me:

McNally is trying to understand and forgive his mother. Why is she so homophobic, when she doesn’t put it on religion? She has internalized society’s disapproval. She has also accepted the belief of her generation that someone must be to blame for Andre’s orientation, and that someone is probably her. She is carrying the weight of guilt that she made her son gay, especially since being gay led to his early death. She’s desperate to shift the blame — to her husband, to Cal, to some anonymous man — and she also feels rage at whoever gave Andre AIDS. She is so consumed with guilt over having a gay son — having somehow made him gay — that it is hard for her to accept that her guilt is really over having rejected and hurt her son.

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10. Finally, expect an impressive Manhattan apartment for the set. Cal is a wealthy money manager with a glamorous home and terrific view, and Abels, wearing another hat as scenic designer, has gone the extra effort. He calls it the largest and most detailed StageWorks set ever in the Bonner.

“He told us when the set is done, we should want to move in,” Ryan says. “And I think I will.”

Show info

“Mothers and Sons,” opens 7:30 p.m. Friday, Sept. 8, at the Fresno Art Museum’s Bonner Auditorium, 2233 N. 1st St. Runs through Sept. 17. Tickets: $25 general, $22 students and seniors.

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Covering the arts online in the central San Joaquin Valley and beyond. Lover of theater, classical music, visual arts, the literary arts and all creative endeavors. Former Fresno Bee arts critic and columnist. Graduate of Columbia University and Cal Poly San Luis Obispo. Excited to be exploring the new world of arts journalism.

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