PLAYBILL.COM'S BRIEF ENCOUNTER With Tyne Daly, Re-Examining Motherhood in Mothers and Sons

Tyne Daly, a Tony Award winner for her work as overbearing stage mother Rose in Gypsy, re-examines motherhood with Katharine Gerard, the central role in Terrence McNally's new Broadway play Mothers and Sons.

Tyne Daly
Tyne Daly (Photo by Joseph Marzullo/WENN)

*

Tyne Daly was last seen on Broadway in the 2011 revival of Terrence McNally's Master Class, where she played glamorous, operatic diva Maria Callas. She reunites with McNally for his 20th Broadway production, Mothers and Sons — which opens March 24 at the John Golden Theatre (home to McNally's original Master Class, starring Zoe Caldwell) — and takes on grief-stricken mother Katharine Gerard, a role that (McNally admits) he wrote specifically for the Tony Award-winning actress. When Katharine loses her husband to cancer, she takes a trip to New York City to pay a surprise visit to Cal Porter, her late son's ex-partner. Through a series of argumentative conversations, Katharine struggles with her son's sexuality, his death from AIDS and her own outdated views on equality. At a press event — held at an Upper West Side apartment, in the style of the show, in the midst of Mothers and Sons previews — Daly spoke with Playbill.com about Katharine, motherhood and McNally.

Tell me about Katharine Gerard?
Tyne Daly: Well, you have to come to see her to know all about her. She's real, I know that. She's complicated. She's a product of her own time. She has a heart like a fist, in terms of how she's experienced personal grief. Grief has closed her down, and she's been holding onto it for a very long time. I love her.

Terrence McNally wrote a piece for Playbill magazine, in which he said he not only wrote for your voice, but also for your soul. Do you feel like you know this woman all too well?
TD: Hmm… Well, it's an amazing thing to have a wonderful, important playwright say that he wrote a play for you. And, I've been working for a very long time, but it still makes me… It's very gratifying to think, "Wow. My voice…" All the time, as an actor, when you play somebody, [people] ask, "Is that you?" Was Mary Beth Lacey [in "Cagney & Lacey"] me? Was Rose Hovick [in Gypsy] me? The only one everyone was sure wasn't me was Maria Callas [in Master Class] because Maria Callas was Maria Callas. But, certainly, you always use yourself. That's what we have. We don't have a violin or a piano. We have ourselves.

I think Terrence has a beautiful voice as a playwright, and he writes very musically, and I'm a person who is an aural learner — not a visual learner. I often hear a character first before I see her or see a space. I'm mesmerized today because we're looking at this amazing view from this apartment building, and it's very close to the one that's described in the play, so I'm kind of sucking this in. So, I hear her… Terrence has said to me, "We get each other." We get each other. I don't know if there's a more articulate way to say that. I "get it" about his writing… His writing is very shaped and considered. There's not a casual or throwaway word in the [piece], so it's like an opera score or a musical score. If you sing one of the notes wrong, it's not going to be quite right. There's a wonderful discipline — strictness — to it, and inside that strictness, you have room to play. It's really fun. He's really fun to work for. Doing Callas was a big stretch and challenge for me, and I also had the example of Zoe Caldwell, and that had been one of the times in the theatre that moved me enormously, so to take that on was kind of a deep breath. But this one is… I love it for its timeliness, for its newness and for its compassion.

Daly in Mothers and Sons.
Photo by Joan Marcus

What have you been rediscovering since the run at Bucks County Playhouse? And, because you're in previews, what are you finding new about Katharine?
TD: A lot of differences. We have a different Cal. We have Fred Weller instead of Manoel Felciano, whom I had a wonderful time with, but it was very quick work — it was kind of instant work — so [there] are the opportunities to deepen it, and it's still changing every day. As we change little bitty things or re-juxtapose phrases or add little points of emotion, the opportunity is to grow in the [piece] — to grow and to deepen. I think we'll be ready. I think, in a sense, we're ready now. We're ready for preview audiences. Preview audiences are pure. I love preview audiences because they haven't been instructed on what to think yet. They haven't been told too much about the [work] itself, and they haven't been given an opinion to either agree or disagree with. These weeks — we have one-and-a-half more — are where you do a lot of learning. You always learn because… Folks say a lot, "How can you do theatre? How can you do eight a week? Doesn't it get boring? Doesn't it get repetitive?" No, because the other character in the communication is the audience, and the audience is new and varies every time, so that supplies the other side of the conversation. Tell me about being a mother and approaching this mother in the show. Do you ever feel touched?
TD: [Laughs.] I've played mothers since I was about 12 years old. For some reason, that's my assignment. I mostly play mothers. It was fun to play Maria [Callas] because she wasn't a mother, but I mostly do mothers, and I feel like I'm in defense of mothers in our society because mothers get a really lousy deal! [Laughs.] We used to say, "If it ain't one thing, it's your mother." Mothers take a lot of heat, and maybe they should because nobody has to get born, but I am the mother of three grownup children — daughters — and the grandmother of four grandchildren, one of whom is a boy, my one grandson, and that job is a beautiful and noble job. And, I wouldn't trade that for any of the jobs I've done. My favorite "productions" are Alisabeth, Kathryne, Alyxandra, Hannah, Finn, Poppy and Posey. Those are my favorite productions of all time! [Laughs.] I know people who have put their life aside in order to do their work. We used to have [a t-shirt in L.A. that read], "My work is my life." My t-shirt said, "My work is my job." My work is my job — that's a different thing than my life. My life is all of the gifts and what I get to draw on for my work, but don't get mistaken about that! [Laughs.] People make mistakes, and if you think that your work is your life, sometimes you miss a lot of good stuff — a lot of good times.

Why do you think this work is so important to today's generation of theatregoers?
TD: Because we forget. We forget our history. It's easier to put aside painful stuff and difficult struggles. We conveniently forget so we can go forward, but what the theatre does, from time to time, is remind us of where we've come from, what we've come through, and I think this is an amazingly topical play because there's been a space-time of a quarter of a century — about 25 years — from a crisis to the changing of laws, under our system that's supposedly run by law. I personally know about the changing of laws to enhance lives. We lived through the Civil Rights movements, the second wave of feminism, trying to achieve tolerance and fairness under the law, but people your age forget. They need to be reminded. And, people my age need a reminder, too, because we've cherry-picked the good stuff and left the tougher stuff behind. And, Terrence is a beautiful chronicler of our times.

(Playbill.com staff writer Michael Gioia's work appears in the news, feature and video sections of Playbill.com as well as in the pages of Playbill magazine. Follow him on Twitter at @PlaybillMichael.)