Civilities Chat: Tony Award-winner Terrence McNally talks theater, politics and love

Photo: Michael Childers
Photo: Michael Childers

This week we had a special guest–four-time Tony award-winning playwright Terrence McNally–who took questions about his latest play “Mothers and Sons,” his other works, the changing world for LGBT people, and naturally opera and his husband. This transcript is adapted from the online chat.

Is “Mothers & Sons” autobiographical?

Q: Much like the characters in the play, I know there’s a significant age difference between you and your husband. I’m wondering how autobiographical the play is and if Tyne Daly’s character [Katharine Gerard] plays a stand in for your own mother?

A: My plays are usually emotionally autobiographical, seldom literally. My husband Tom and I share a 25 years age difference. But our relationship is not a subject of the play. Cal and Will [the two male leads who are married in the play] are much closer in age than we are. My mother informs some of Katharine but so do a lot of mothers and women I have observed over my 75 years.

Has my generation forgotten about AIDS?

Q: Mr. McNally – I am in my early 30′s and a particular passage from your play really struck a chord with me. You write: “First it [AIDS] will be a chapter in a history book, then a paragraph, then a footnote. … It’s already started to happen. I can feel it happening. All the raw edges of pain dulled, deadened, drained away.” I can feel it happening too – so many of my friends don’t treat it with the importance or the urgency I think it deserves. What do you think? Has my generation forgotten about AIDS, and what do you think it’s going to take to make us remember?

A: I think it’s important for all of us to tell our stories as honestly and urgently as possible. If the “young” forget or don’t even know their recent history, it is the fault of the generations of gay men and women who preceded them.

Courtesy Tom Kirdahy
Courtesy Tom Kirdahy

Is the play helping to bridge generations?

Q: “Mothers and Sons” explores the interactions between, and reactions of, different generations to the loss of a loved one to AIDS. Do you feel the play is creating the understanding between generations you hoped for, and what reactions are you getting you did not anticipate?

A: Yes, the talk backs [post show discussions] and mail I have received make me feel we are reaching an audience with this play. I’m only surprised by the number of mid-30′s to younger who say they “didn’t know” how bad the crisis was at its height. They also are not as aware that young men are still getting infected as they should be. The work continues.

Are you surprised by the changing LGBT landscape?

Q: How surprised are you by how quickly the LGBT landscape has changed in the past 10 years? Do you have any disappointments? Or, what’s left to come?

A: The changes are wonderful but [didn't come] as quickly as they now seem. The struggle for marriage equality began before AIDS. My disappointment is that homophobia is as rampant as ever. Good legislation is not enough to change people’s hearts but it’s a good place to start for those of us wanting our full rights as citizens of the USA.

Terrence McNally (L) and husband Tom Kirdahy
Terrence McNally (L) and husband Tom Kirdahy

The meaning of marriage to you?

Q: What did getting married mean to you? Was it more – or less — what you expected?

A: The happiest day of my life and the best thing I ever did. I happen to think Tom Kirdahy is the best man in the world, which makes me the luckiest.

Did you ever imagine using the word “husband” 10 or 20 years ago?

Q: My husband and I attended a performance in late March. One of the (many) things that struck us about the play was the way in which Cal talks about the importance of the term “husband” to defining his relationship. My husband and I find ourselves repeating lines from the play (“the reservation is in my husband’s name”) often as we remark on the same thing. You really seemed to understand that in the way you wrote the play. Is that something you ever imagined ten or twenty years ago? This play felt so current and timely and “now,” partly because of your deft handling of the ways we define and describe our relationships now.

A: Cal struggling with the “h” word is completely autobiographical. The first time I used it in public was in Boston about 7 years ago. (Of course we weren’t legally married then.) I referred to Tom as my “H…hu..hus..husband” and my face got pretty red. It didn’t take long to get used to it, however. Especially now that it’s legal I use the word every chance I get. Already it gets absolutely no reaction from anyone! Life marches on.

Why did you get married in DC and not your home state of NY?

Q: I know you were married in Washington D.C. during the run of several of your plays at the Kennedy Center (which was a great treat, by the way). If I recall, Tyne Daly was one of your witnesses. Why did you choose to be married in D.C. as opposed to waiting for it in your home state?

A: We chose to be married in D.C. because we had spent so much time there during the Kennedy Center productions and were very fond of it. It was spring and the cherry blossoms were out. It just seemed right and romantic. We didn’t expect NY State to allow us to marry so quickly after the big and stunning defeat in Albany the year before. We got tired waiting and we wanted to celebrate a wonderful 3 months in D.C. as much as our own happiness.

How was it working with director Sheryl Kaller?

Q: Do you think having a director, Sheryl Kaller, who is both a woman and mother influenced the shape the play took in onstage?

A: I loved working with Sheryl. She is a director whose work I had been tracking and admiring. When it came time to produce the play, both the producer and I thought a talented, experienced woman would be a good choice. She was our first choice and said yes. She was also very patient with our 7-year-old company member. I don’t think I could have been so good with Grayson.

Love! Valor! Compassion!

Q: I just wanted to thank you for this play. When I saw it in New York after the transfer to Broadway, I thought that the scene in which the couple (Arthur and Perry I think) took turns trimming each other’s ear hair was the most intimate thing I had ever seen on stage. Ever.

A: Thank you for noticing. When I wrote this scene, I was thinking “no playwright has ever put such physical intimacy on the stage.” You’re the first person who has ever even mentioned it, including the original cast members and director!

How has opera influenced your plays?

Q: Most, if not all, of your plays have references or passages from operas. and in many ways, they deal with the emotions of operas – love, death, anger, fear. How do you see the relationship between the emotions in your plays and the emotions in opera? And what do we learn about dealing with the emotional upheavals in our lives? (And by the way, what was the passage you used in “Mothers and Sons.” I didn’t catch it.)

A: I fell in love with opera in the 6th grade thanks to an Ursuline nun who played records for us. I was attracted to opera long before theatre. Well, good opera is theatre, so I’d better clarify what I mean. I like big emotions and they are in most of my plays. I’m not a minimalist or an ironicist. I love people when they laugh wildly and cry wildly. I have trouble with the in-between stuff. Some day a smart critic will write a paper about the influence of Verdi and Mozart on my work rather than Albee or Pinter.

The aria is L’amero saro costane from Mozart’s Il Re Pastore. It is on almost every soprano’s recording of Mozart arias. The one you heard at the Golden [Theater] is sung by a young Irish soprano who did “Master Class” in London last year. It was recorded a capella expressly for this production.

The cast of "Mothers and Sons." Photo courtesy Tom Kirdahy
The cast of “Mothers and Sons.” Photo courtesy Tom Kirdahy

Why did you write the play for Tyne Daly?

Q: I know you’ve said you wrote this play with Tyne in mind. What drew you to her for the role of “Mrs. Gerard”?

A: Tyne is a great stage actress. She is fearless. She does not beg for sympathy. She makes Katharine a moving, tragic figure (for me anyway) precisely because she is so resolute in her unwillingness to be wrong or re-define her notion of love. She is stranded utterly alone, though I think there is a glimmer of hope at the end of the play for her. None of the cast or director or producer or me are in agreement about what she is going to do “next”

Will “Mothers and Sons” go on tour? Will Tyne Daly join?

Q: While we are discussing your latest play, are there plans to tour it? Maybe with Tyne? I certainly hope so, so that more people can see and and more importantly, FEEL this brilliant play.

A: I will share your thoughts with the producer. I would love that. But tours have become almost non-existent since I began writing plays. The best, I would imagine I can hope for Tyne is a limited run in 3 or 4 “major” cities.

What’s up next for you?

Q: What are the next projects you have coming up? I’ve read about IT’S ONLY A PLAY and ANASTASIA. Any details you’re willing to share about what’s next for you? Will you be writing a new Broadway play in the future?

A: We’re doing a revised version of THE VISIT at Williamstown in August. Second Stage is reviving Lips Together, Teeth Apart on November 3. Anastasia has a workshop in August and then we’ll see what the next step is with that project. A busy summer and fall, that’s for sure. Thanks for being so up to date on what I’m up to!

Steven Petrow, the author of “Steven Petrow’s Complete Gay & Lesbian Manners,” addresses questions about LGBT and straight etiquette in his column, Civilities.
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