Bucks County Playhouse’s rise back to the top has been awfully inspiring to watch; in its presentation of Terrence McNally’s “Mothers and Sons,” the reborn Playhouse has its first bona fide play for the ages, a lean and fascinating new work that shines with Tyne Daly in the lead, surrounded by a first-rate cast.
“Mothers and Sons” is a ground-up reworking and sort-of-sequel to a 1990 teleplay by McNally; “Andre’s Mother,” — a cult favorite of the defunct PBS series American Playhouse — featured a heartbroken mother unable to accept her gay son Andre for who he was, nor his partner or his death from AIDS.
Twenty-three years and four Tony Awards later, McNally proves himself a master of his craft in this revision. Katharine (Daly, in what may be the performance of her considerable career) has traveled to New York from her rural Texas home for an unannounced visit to Cal (Manoel Felciano), her deceased son’s former lover. Cal is now married, with a precocious six-year-old child (Grayson Taylor). It has been 25 years since Katharine and Cal interacted last — at Andre’s funeral — and Cal has clearly put a considerable amount of energy into moving on. Katharine has arrived with a keepsake of Andre’s in her possession — something she wants Cal to have.
Katharine’s reappearance reopens old wounds and a reexamination of how far we’ve all come since the late 1980s and early 1990s — and how far we still have to go. Being a gay man is no longer a pariah-inducing mark of shame in American culture, and AIDS, while a major health concern, is no longer the death sentence it once was. But our hearts and minds often change slower than the world around us does, and Katherine seems dead set on portraying herself as the same woman she was a quarter century ago. Cal and his partner, Will (Bobby Steggert), have clearly moved forward into an open world of love and acceptance, and Katharine remains frozen at the moment of the death of her son. She cannot understand this brave new normalcy and views homosexuals as a community that murdered Andre. There is a seething, slow burning rage to Daly’s performance, and there are moments where she seems certain to explode into a dervish of ugly, magnificent destruction. She is by no means a villain, though, and it is terrifyingly easy to understand what she has gone through and how profoundly her loss has scarred and altered her.
“Mothers and Sons” takes all of these perspectives and bounces them off one another in ways that feel real and candid, so much so that at moments I felt I was eavesdropping on family conversations to which I should not be privy (that is a compliment). This is an occasionally bracing, often funny story of rage and redemption. I found myself surprised and involved throughout the entire evening, and that is no small feat. This is a play that thrives on masterful wordsmithing, and delivers a brutal and heartfelt message about what time actually does to old wounds.
Also of note is Wilson Chin’s gorgeous set; this new incarnation of the Playhouse is rapidly making beautiful design a benchmark. When combined with this stellar cast and Sheryl Kaller’s patient and impeccable direction, Bucks County Playhouse presents us with the first must-see production of the summer — you will get yourself lost in it, and then find yourself talking about it with friends and family for days to come.
I need to make special note here that I am duly impressed at the little customer service flourishes the theater adds with each production — I was tickled to find al fresco dining tables added in the courtyard out front, and the outdoor will call station is courteous and quick. The bathrooms are also designed with rustic charm and worth a look (albeit tiny for a theater this size), and the new bar on the rear deck of the theater is a delight.
A word of caution — arrive early, as parking in New Hope is a persistent and vexing frustration. The theater offers a number of parking solutions at exorbitantly high rates of $15 to $20, from lot parking to a shuttle bus from the high school to valet service. You are best off allowing ample time, and taking your chances with on-street options.
Mothers and Sons, Bucks County Playhouse, 70 South Main Street, New Hope. Through June 23. $29 to $57.50. 215-862-2121 or www.bcptheater.org.