Terrence McNally's latest play, Mothers and Sons, is a multi-generational exploration on the realities of the lives of gay men. Tyne Daly plays a woman who makes an unexpected visit to her deceased son's former partner (Frederick Weller)'s home. She carries the common prejudice against gay men that was instilled in her generation. However, when visiting the home, she has to confront a more modern reality of gay men. Her son's former partner has married a younger man named Will (Bobby Steggert) and has a young son (Grayson Taylor).
One of the things that struck me most about the play was the intergenerational nature of the production. The play represents has four characters representing four generations and four distinct experiences of the lives of gay men. The play also touches on themes have been dominant in gay history: the closet, family acceptance, HIV/AIDS, marriage equality, parenting, and bullying. Each one of these themes represents what's important to those different generations. It also exposes the conflicts that exists between the priorities of each generation.
I got to have a conversation with Bobby Steggert, who plays Will. Through our conversations, phrases like, "gay men of my generation" would pop up. Steggert was very aware of how much his life both resembled the characters and conflicts within the play, as well as how his life and experience has led him to a point of being able make a distinction between him and his characters.
The play touches on so many different themes: HIV/AIDS, parenting, marriage equality, LGBT-hostile in-laws, etc. Is this a play that is trying to drive a particular message?
What attracted me most to the play is that it tracks the entire modern gay experience in a short 90 minute play. There are plays about AIDS, and marriage, and nontraditional family, and this is a story that covers the last three decades in a succinct and graceful way. I don't think the play has as a necessarily political bent, the way "The Normal Heart" does. Terrence McNally wrote the play from his own quiet, personal experiences. He grew up in Texas. He dealt with the disapproval of his own mother. He lost a partner to AIDS. He's now married to a wonderful man. I think this makes the play more of a heartfelt reflection, if not a totally autobiographical one.
One of the themes that stood out to me is "generations." There are four generations represented in the cast, and it seems like each generation approaches the realities of gay men in such a different way. How explicit was that in the creative process?
Generational perspective was one of the most important focuses of the rehearsal process. Sheryl [Kaller, the director] called it "separate realities." My character is entirely integrated into his sexual orientation, but he is still aware of the need to wear it and defend it. Perhaps the greatest generational perspective is that of Bud [the 6-year old son], who isn't even aware of the need to express what being gay is. His generation is one that will hopefully interpret sexual orientation as a complete non-issue.
How much do you identify with the character of Will? In the play, his husband, Cal, says that he has always had the expectation of marriage and family. What are your expectations for your life as a gay man?
Both very much and not at all. Will grew up with an inherent belief in the entitlement he was due to an equal life, and with an understanding that marriage and family is his birthright. I have that spark in me. At the same time, I grew up in 1980’s suburban Maryland without any gay influence, and somewhat lonely. It wasn’t until I went to NYU that I connected with other gay men and started to believe that my life might not be such an isolated one.
Your character, Will, is somewhat of a "bomb-dropper" who moves the plot forward by asking the provocative questions, but leaving it up to the other characters [Katherine and Cal] to talk through them. Is that a part of Will's role?
Will provokes, because he knows that sometimes the only way to make any progress in a situation is to "drop a bomb" or actually talk about the elephant in the room. Some people might think it's rude, but I think it's necessary. My generation is less concerned with appearances, and more comfortable talking about the uncomfortable things. That's what makes Will different than his partner [Cal, who is 15 years older]. He's willing to really engage in a conflict with a strength of perspective.
You came out in a public way just last year. Are there figures that you see paving the way for your life?
When I was in Big Fish, I realized that life is way too short, and I was carrying some residual shame by not being completely open. I'm in the theater community, which is the gayest place in the world. I brought boyfriends to events and played gay characters, but didn't ever talk about my own experience in interviews. Somewhere along the line, though, I realized that being a great actor requires transparency. You can’t hide from the world in your life if your job is to expose your deepest vulnerabilities. It just doesn’t match up. I needed to do it for myself, and it's been a great experience for me. I feel much happier with my life and work these days.
There are two different types of artists who have paved the way for me. I really credit the artists who are gay, but known best for being damn good at their jobs: Victor Garber, Nathan Lane, Anderson Cooper. In my own generation, there are men whose sexual orientation has been an integral part of their artistic contribution, and has been incorporated into their craft: Michael Urie, Jonathan Groff, Andrew Rannells. Both classes of men are an inspiration to me.
What do you want viewers of “Mothers and Sons” to take away from the show?
I hope they think about something far more universal than gay issues, AIDS issues, or family issues. I want them to walk away understanding that each of us, in every life, carries pain. Generally, we don't know how to hold our pain, but pain is one of the universal experiences that we humans share - one of our great bonds. I hope that people who see the show learn that the only way they can heal is through the process of sharing their pain with others.
Mothers and Sons is currently playing at the Golden Theater in New York City. (Note: GLAAD board member, Cody Lassen, is involved in the production.)