The lights brighten. Two figures stand frozen in a silence so thick you can cut it with a knife. Before the first word is even uttered, so much is already at play. You can see it in a set of the lips here or an arch of the brow there. At first glance it seems these two will never speak, and yet they will. They have to. The fact is, these two have a lot to say to each other, just as Terrance McNally’s critically-acclaimed play Mothers and Sons has a lot to say to us.
Mothers and Sons, running now through March 6 at Portland’s own Artists Repertory Theater (ART), explores the evolving definition of a modern-day family and the redemptive power of forgiveness. At the helm is veteran Portland director Jane Unger, who was a founding member and creative director behind Profile Theater. Unger shows a deft hand in her ability to elicit careful precision and quick wit without losing the weight of the occasion; and a weight it is. McNally’s look at fraught relationships laid bare by both tragedy and time is heavy work, a load only lightened by his ability to break the sullen mood with brutally honest and mildly caustic humor.
Fortunately for Unger, her prior experience with a full run of McNally plays at Profile Theater armed her with the dramaturgical tools required to find the subtle nuance between sorrow and humor. “It benefited my work on the play to have been aware of his comic writing and to really find those moments in the script which are not so obvious,” explains Unger.
Although Mothers and Sons only focuses on four characters, and over a paltry 90 minutes of their lives, the unspoken parables could fill a lifetime. It’s a story of love lost and found; of complicated relationships lit up under the harsh glare of generational differences and unintended ignorance. It accurately charts the losses and gains for gay men from the time HIV was first identified in the early ’80s until now. Perhaps the most powerful aspect of the play is the normalcy it assigns to the modern two-dad family. Seeing young Bud interact with his fathers gives the viewing public a welcome glimpse into a normal family trying to make their way in the world, just like any other.
Bud Ogden-Porter, played by Holden Goyette, capably plays the natural ice breaker in a room frozen with adult-infused tension. Although Goyette does a skillful job portraying little Bud, an unexpected problem took Unger by surprise. “He’s just so good, but between the time he auditioned in August and when we started rehearsals in January, he grew quite a bit,” Unger says with a laugh.
In fact, Goyette’s growth spurt prompted a letter to McNally himself, requesting that he approve of a change to Bud’s age for this particular run. “I will not change anything in the script without getting permission from the playwright,” Unger states matter-of-factly. Fortunately, McNally agreed, Bud’s age was bumped up a year, and Mothers and Sons moved forward without a hitch.
Age aside, Bud and crew electrify the theater with intense performances interspersed among lighter moments. ART heavyweight JoAnn Johnson is a powerhouse in her portrayal of steely-eyed, self-proclaimed “Yankee” Katharine Gerard. And although Katherine may not, as she puts it, tolerate “gratuitous familiarity,” we’re okay with becoming gratuitously familiar with Johnson’s riveting performance. She effortlessly straddles the line between grief and anger; between the gentle touch of soft skin and the tight clench of a gloved fist.
Ryan Tresser and Michael Mendelson round out the cast as two fathers figuring out how to square their vibrant present with the ghosts of a sorrowful past. Driven by a director who likes to “explore the text in a really deep way,” Mothers and Sons flies through 90 minutes, leaving you in a state of contemplative catharsis as the lights come up. Although some would say forgiveness is a two-way street, Mothers and Sons teaches us that it affords a journey undiminished by distance or time, no matter who is deserving of it.
Mothers and Sons is running through March 6 on the Alder Stage at the Artists Repertory Theater, located at 1516 SW Alder Street, Portland, Oregon. Ticket prices are $48; $25 for students or those under 25. For ticket information call 503.241.1278 or click here.