Review: Mothers And Sons (Ensemble Theatre)

ensembleVenue: Ensemble Theatre (Kirribilli NSW), Aug 21 – Sep 27, 2015
Playwright: Terrence McNally
Director: Sandra Bates
Cast: Tim Draxl, Thomas Fisher, Jason Langley, Anne Tenney
Image by Clare Hawley

Theatre review
In Mothers And Sons, Terrence McNally uses the simplest of stories to present a range of thoughtful and provocative themes that are relevant to both our contemporary concerns, and to perennial troubles of human nature. Katharine comes to visit an impossibly perfect gay couple, Cal and Will, at their apartment in Manhattan. Andre (Katharine’s son and Cal’s previous partner) had died of AIDS 20 years ago, and it is only now that Katharine decides to pick up the pieces, and to find resolution with demons of the past that continue to haunt her. McNally’s writing is emotional, intelligently meaningful, and striking in its lyrical beauty. There is also an engaging humour in its dry wit and dark comedy that underscore the tormented relationships being dissected.

Sandra Bates’ direction of the piece explores with sensitivity, the many social issues and personal afflictions characteristic of the play. There is a deliberate gravitas that gives the production its integrity, and whether dealing with intimate matters like resentment and regret, or wider subjects of kinship and homophobia, Bates is able to give them all a reverential emphasis that encourages its audience to handle with care. The play tends however, to be too serious in tone, especially at its early stages, where our encounter with personalities require a lighter touch.

Played by Anne Tenney, Katharine is a staunch figure, a mean old woman whose incessant use of the word “hate” reveals as much about herself as it does her pessimistic view of, well, everything. Tenney’s portrayal is psychologically convincing and ultimately a moving one, but the comical eccentricities of her character’s melancholic despair are not embraced with enough power. The actor delivers a few laughs over the course of the show, but the exuberance of the text is frequently downplayed to accommodate a more literal interpretation of Katharine’s depressed experience of the world. Jason Langley is an extremely gentle Cal, very amiable and authentic, but insufficiently agitated in his tensions with Katharine, and often too subtle with his passion for his gay rights and lovers. Both actors create together, a stunning final scene of breathtaking sentimentality, but the arduous journey towards the play’s conclusion could be managed with greater, and more entertaining, turbulence. Adding a dimension of liveliness to proceedings is Tim Draxl in the supporting role of Cal’s husband Will. Draxl sustains an impressive energy through sequences of shifting temperaments, and is relied upon to provide breaths of fresh air at each entrance, to a very restrained stage.

We all feel the trajectory of time and the way it moves things forward, with or without our selves. Katharine is deeply unhappy, but she refuses to accept the transformations that occur around her, and withdraws from participating in the joys of life that are easily within reach. The feelings of being hard done-by are familiar to everyone, and Mothers And Sons illustrates with excellent clarity, the anguish of being enslaved by one’s own obstinacy. It also persuades us on the changing nature of the family unit; how we conceive of same-sex marriages and the bearing of children within those unions. A woman unable to reconcile her homophobia with her son’s sexuality punishes much more than herself. Hate tries to contaminate its environment, and often it succeeds, but truth and the human conscience has a way of defeating its poison, even if the process needs to drudge through generations of struggle and wasted lives.

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  1. Pingback: Review Roundup: Mothers and Sons | Theatre Now

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