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Crimcast is a virtual resource devoted to critical conversations about criminology and criminal justice issues. Our blogposts, twitter feeds, podcasts and other content provide an overview of trends, research, commentary and events of interest to criminal justice practitioners, academics and the general public. CrimCast is sponsored by The Center for Crime and Popular Culture, St. Francis College, Brooklyn, NY.

Terrence McNally’s Mothers and Sons

Nickie Phillips

Demetra M. Pappas, JD, MSc, PhD, Crimcast Correspondent

As luck would have it, I saw Terrence McNally’s new play, Mothers and Sons, the same week that I saw Dallas Buyers’ Club. The 2013 Dallas Buyers earned Matthew McConaughey a Best Actor Oscar as heterosexual (and homophobic) “guy’s guy” Ron Woodroof, an electrician and rodeo cowboy who smuggled unapproved pharmaceutical drugs into Texas and created a “virus club” for HIV/AIDS patients after his “30 days to live” diagnosis. In real life, Woodroof viewed this as flipping the bird to the medical establishment, as much as saving time on his life’s clock. He succeeded for years, if success is measurable by the extra years that he lived (not to mention the additional patients who lived longer as a result of his efforts).

Mothers and Sons is the examination by McNally (who also hails from Texas, though from Corpus Christi) of the years after the death of Andre, the boyfriend of lead character Cal Porter (Frederick Weller), who died of AIDS some 20 years earlier.  In 90 minutes, the audience witnesses the real time visit by Andre’s mother, Katharine Gerard (yet another powerful performance by Tony Award winner Tyne Daly). When the play begins, it becomes apparent that Katharine tracked Cal down via his sister, to a beautiful new apartment (designed by Tony Award winner John Lee Beatty), a husband named Will Ogden (Bobby Steggert) and, most shockingly to Katharine, their six-year old, Bud Ogden-Porter (Grayson Taylor).  Katharine, coming to repatriate a personal belonging of her son, which Cal had sent to her, makes her surprise appearance into a family’s life, rather than into the life of the formerly single man she resents for surviving and thriving in the wake of her son’s death.

In other words, McNally is not giving us (and foisting upon Katharine, whose part was expressly written for Daly) Modern Family, but rather A Modern Family. There are difficult to view memorabilia, which serve as conversation starters for the underlying discussion of family and personal secrets, the sick role and the role of the care giver, the meaning of love (both romantic and familial).  Katharine tells Cal that her son Andre “was not gay” until he moved to New York (obviously, and later proven, untrue). There are trades of accusations as to whom and how the transmission of Andre’s HIV took place.

There is formality and contained physicality of drama, an interesting with directorial choices by Sheryl Kaller. As one such example, when the curtain rises, Katharine is standing rigidly while wearing a fur coat (which she refuses to take off for a length of time), and she and Weller (looking equally uncomfortable) look out at the audience for some 30 seconds. They refer to each other by surnames for a length of the play (unthinkable in today’s society of informality, perhaps even more so since the players repeatedly make contemporary references and refer back 20 years to Andre’s death).

The story of Cal’s former lover’s death and his recovery to moving forward to a new marriage and biologically related offspring appalls Katharine, but serves as a social history of AIDS.  Also, in addition to finely making the point that 50-year-old Cal’s generational compatriots were slowly and cruelly robbed of their lives in a parade of horrors, McNally has Cal making the point to Katharine that the world lost contributions in the professional and artistic worlds.  Well-done is McNally’s creation of a 15-year junior husband, who grew up assuming that HIV/AIDS was a risk factor, who assumed that he would have a chance for a full life with children, a life to be lived well.

Today, I had a congenial disagreement with a long-time friend who saw this superb chamber piece a few days after I did. She said that she was disappointed that Katharine does not change in the course of the play;  my response was that Katharine changes enormously, giving both sorrowful back story and a surprising glimmer of hope for an unexpected future.

See this excellent piece and decide for yourself.


Demetra M. Pappas, JD, MSc, PhD was named the 2011/2012 SGA Faculty Member of the Year at St. Francis College for her work in the Department of Sociology and Criminal Justice. Her first book, The Euthanasia/Assisted Suicide Debate, (Greenwood Press:  2012) has been nominated and short listed for the 2013 British Society of Criminology Book Prize and most recently nominated for the 2014 International Qualitative Inquiry Book Prize. Her doctoral dissertation for the London School of Economics and Political Science (Department of Law, co-supervised by the Department of Sociology), was entitled, The Politics of Euthanasia and Assisted Suicide: A Comparative Case Study of Emerging Criminal Law and the Criminal Trials of Jack ‘Dr. Death’ Kevorkian.. She also writes about dramaturgy, culinary culture, visual sociology and criminal justice issues.  She may be reached at and followed on Twitter @DemetraPappas