Mothers and Sons and Actors: Terrence McNally Writes About Zoe Caldwell, Tyne Daly and Other “McNally Actors”

By Terrence McNally
10 Mar 2014

Terrence McNally
Terrence McNally
Photo by Joseph Marzullo/WENN

Award-winning playwright Terrence McNally, whose play Mothers and Sons is in previews on Broadway, shares his thoughts on the collaboration between the playwright and the performer.


Nothing is more dependent on its interpreters than a new play. We look at a painting, we listen to music, we read a novel. But we experience a play through its performance in a theatre.

For a play, its first performance is everything. No one knows that better than the playwright. Unless the stars are in perfect alignment — the actors, director, designers, producers — a new play's chances of success, let alone a second production, are dim. The dustbins are full of once-new plays that had they been better realized in their first incarnation might still be remembered, even performed. I probably have written one or two of them. I'm hoping Mothers and Sons won't be one of them.

Having an actor like Tyne Daly in the role of Katharine Gerard, a role I wrote for her but with no guarantee that she would agree to play it, was my best bet that the play I heard in my head was the play that would be heard at the Golden. It wasn't just Tyne's voice I was writing for: it was her sensibility and her soul. I know what makes her laugh; I like to think I know what makes her deeply care, as well.

From the first rehearsal of the recent revival of Master Class I knew that I had found in Tyne an actor who understood my rhythms and embodied the passions and conflicts that fueled those rhythms. I call them "McNally actors," and when I find one, I never let them go.

Mothers and Sons is cast top to bottom with them. I have long been in Fred Weller's thrall but never more so than after working with him on Some Men at Second Stage; it was just a matter of time before I would write for him again. He just had to come back from the West Coast to where he belongs, the theatre. Bobby Steggert is on everyone's short list of Best of His Generation; working with him on the revival of Ragtime was the beginning of writing the part of Will Ogden with everything crossed he would one day play it. And although he's too young to know what I mean by a "McNally Actor," Master Grayson Taylor already is. He is making his debut in exalted company, and the grown-ups are very proud he is.

My dialogue is words on a page until actors like these bring them to life in real time and space. Theatre is three-dimensional; literature is two.


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