Terrence McNally’s ‘Mothers and Sons’ opens in Philly this week

Terrence McNally’s ‘Mothers and Sons’ opens in Philly this week

A daddy’s girl is a cute concept, but a grown son who won’t loosen the bond with his mother is not. And a mother who clings tight to her grown son?

“She’s kind of a bitch,” says Michael Learned, during week two of rehearsals for the Philadelphia Theatre Company’s “Mothers and Sons.”

The play, by four-time Tony winner Terrence McNally, is very much about the relationships in its title. Learned is Katharine, a woman grieving for the son she lost 20 years earlier to AIDS. She pays an unexpected visit to her son’s former boyfriend, Cal, now living with his husband and raising their own son.
Four generations interact onstage, exploring the bonds between parents and children, and how being gay has changed in society.

Cal is in his 50s; this is “a whole new world for him,” Learned describes. “His partner, Will, is much younger — he has a different perspective. And the little boy won’t even know these issues.”

Katharine, meanwhile, is “locked back in the feelings of the ’50s and ’60s. She’s rigid. She’s stuck,” Learned says of her character. “She has Freud — or one of those patriarchal voices — telling her she’s failed as a mother because her son was homosexual.”

But the play isn’t about being gay; it’s about family and forgiveness — and it’s not nearly as dark as the plot summary implies. There are light moments among the intensity, Learned promises. “It’s exciting, intense, funny, sad. It’s everything,” she says.

It opens in previews Friday at the Suzanne Roberts Theatre.


“When I first read [the script], I thought ‘this woman is a monster. I can’t play this part! I can’t relate to it,’” says Learned, who is herself a mom to three sons. “But then I thought, I’ve got to find a way to see through her eyes. She was a good mom when her son was little, and now she’s locked in this deep grief. She’s desperate to connect to her son’s lover but she doesn’t know how. I had to find a way to see where she’s coming from.”

Emmys and Tonys

Playwright McNally won an Emmy Award for his 1990 TV movie “Andre’s Mother” — “Mothers and Sons” is a continuation of that story, set 20 years later. He also has four Tony Awards, and his show “It’s Only a Play” is currently on Broadway, starring Nathan Lane and Matthew Broderick.

Learned has three Emmys for her role as Olivia Walton on “The Waltons,” which ran 1972 to 1981 on CBS, plus one more for her role on “Nurse.” She’s also received a Peoples’ Choice Award, was nominated for a Golden Globe multiple times, and has a long list of theater credits.

The Philadelphia Theatre Company’s “Mothers and Sons,” opens for previews at the Suzanne Roberts Theatre (Broad and Lombard streets) Friday and runs through March 8. Tickets are $46 to $59 at www.philadelphiatheatrecompany.org.