Mothers and Sons, by Terence McNally | Directed by Sandra Bates

Ensemble Theatre | Ensemble Theatre, Kirribilli, Sydney | Until 27 September

Mothers and Sons, Terence McNally’s 2014 drama, opens as Katherine Gerard (Anne Tenney), recently widowed, turns up unannounced to a New York apartment. She is travelling from Dallas to Rome just before Christmas. Festivities are in the air but not for the frosty Katherine. Ostensibly, she has stopped by to deliver her deceased son’s unopened journal.

The apartment she visits is in Manhattan, overlooking Central Park. It is expensive in location and design, and here, in a very sleek Ensemble production, appears as almost another character. Impressively designed in substantial detail by Rodney Fisher, it displays the owners’ affluence and also a comfortable domesticity.

The owners are Cal Porter (Jason Langley) and his husband Will Ogden (Tim Draxl). Cal makes a great deal of money in finance, whilst the younger Will is an aspiring novelist and a stay-at-home dad to Bud (Thomas Fisher) their young son.

It is into this happy family, that the bluntly outspoken, brutally forthright, Katherine Gerrard arrives. Her son was Cal’s lover and tragically he died of AIDS aged only 29 and Katherine has come seeking closure. Cal gently answers her intrusive questions about his previous life and Langley is understated but excellent, as the very aware, patiently polite target of her wrath.

It would be easy to play Katherine as a caricature of the cruel mother, but instead Tenney delivers a totally realised character — a conservative and uncomfortable woman who, although she attempts to be courteous, is defensive because she is haunted by the ghost of her only child. Tenney’s every move and facial expression is perfect as she angrily looks for someone to blame for giving her son AIDS.

This is an eloquent exploration of the guilt, grief, rage and resentment that comes with loss, and this production covers immense emotional terrain as the characters manoeuvre from denial to acceptance. Sandra Bates’ sensitive direction orchestrates the many moments of tension and catharsis with remarkable clarity and humanity. At times this is a static drama, but never the less one that effectively explores the guilt, grief, rage and resentment that comes with loss.

McNally’s astute script doesn’t preach. Rather it examines the universal choices we make when we decide to pursue or reject love, and their impact on our overall happiness. These carefully constructed characters chronicle the dramatic transformations that have occurred for gay people in the past quarter of a century. It is an absorbing, interesting look at the emerging acceptance of same-sex marriage and the creation of families, as well as a moving tale of a mother’s journey to come to terms with the loss of her son. Thumbs up!