The opening moments of StageWorks Fresno’s “Mothers and Sons” are remarkable. When the lights go up, we see a man and woman standing next to each other, about as much awkward distance between them as in a police lineup, both staring straight ahead. The silence hanging between them is thick and uncomfortable, verging on excruciating. When they finally murmur some strained small talk to each other about the landmarks of the New York skyline, it becomes clear: The theater’s “fourth wall” in this production is a large picture window with a sweeping view of Central Park.
I was captivated by the non-verbals in this moment. To watch the face of Katharine, who has dropped by the apartment of her dead son’s former lover unannounced, is to see a woman struggling — and failing — to overcome the anger and sadness that is chewing up every inch of her frame. Her surprised host, Cal, obviously still stunned at the unexpected intrusion, likewise works to keep his distress in check, wanting to be polite but unable to completely cover up his exasperation.
Together, standing side by side, watching these complicated emotions flit across their faces, it’s as if with we’re being given a speeded-up, capsule version of what’s to come in this tense drama by Terrence McNally.
Above all, I was taken by the presence of Amelia Ryan, who adds to her repertoire of strong and stirring performances over her many years in the Fresno-area theater scene.
She’s performing a role that McNally originally wrote for the Broadway great Tyne Daly. The playwright wrote “Mothers and Sons” as a sequel of sorts to his 1990 TV movie “Andre’s Mother” about a young man who died of AIDS. Katharine, his mother, who never accepted her son’s sexuality, cannot share her grief with Cal, her son’s lover.
Now, 20 years later, Katharine has suddenly popped up at Cal’s beautiful Central Park apartment and dropped into his new life, which includes a husband, Will, and their son, Bud.
To watch Ryan in the first three-quarters of this terse, intermissionless show, which is directed with a steady and insightful hand by Joel C. Abels, is to witness a display of human anger at its most perplexing and intense. I marveled, in fact, at Ryan’s ability to stoke and maintain that simmering anger without burning out. Katharine is terribly unhappy. Yet she isn’t a one-note character. The play raises many questions simply as to her motivation for invading Cal’s life: What does she hope to gain from seeing him again? What are the roots of her deep and abiding homophobia? How much remorse does she truly feel about the way she treated her son when she found out he was gay, and how sorry is she that she wasn’t there for him when he needed her most?
The production is strengthened by Abels’ detail-oriented, sophisticated scenic design, right down to the crown molding, and his costumes, which give Katharine a practical, matronly air but hint at elegance.
Logan Cooley gives a wonderfully warm and textured turn as Will, the much younger “trophy husband” to Cal, and his own fits of anger at the unexpected intrusion of Katharine in his daily routine feel raw and real. I was impressed with the performance of young Leo Jimesanagnos as Bud (he alternates the role with his brother, Arion), whose wide-eyed, youthful optimism injects a much-needed buoyancy to the otherwise weighty proceedings.
Billy Jack Anderson, as Cal, is solid. But he just didn’t shine for me as much as I would have hoped in this production, and that’s mostly, I think, due to McNally’s script. Cal ends up serving as the playwright’s surrogate voice, a way to express his views on everything from the use of the word “husband” in a gay marriage to the provocative idea that AIDS was able to get such a strong grip on the gay community because men weren’t allowed to marry.
McNally, too, gets a little heavy-handed when it comes to the theme of mothers living through their children, of relying too much on their offspring to validate their own empty lives. Katharine is the conduit for these views, and it’s here, in the last quarter of the play, that I feel her character becomes less fascinating. The sparks that fly between Katharine and Cal — and, yes, they do fly — feel a little rote. (And rushed.) I wanted, in these pivotal moments, for there to be more gaping spaces for the hurt between these two people to resonate and then ebb.
Still, while I wouldn’t rank “Mothers and Sons” among McNally’s best, it can be deeply moving. And this production is anchored by Ryan’s remarkable performance.
At one point early in the proceedings on opening night, she bumped against a lampshade as she crossed from one side of the stage to the other. As she reached out to steady the wobbling, she gave the lamp a cross look that seemed to say, “How dare you get in my way?” I don’t know if that bump was planned or not — I suspect it wasn’t — but the way she reacted in character made me feel as if I somehow knew this woman a little better. Sometimes it’s the moments without words that resonate the most of all.
“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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