Two of the three plays receiving a 2014 Tony nomination for Best Play, Terrence McNally’s “Mothers and Sons” and “Casa Valentina” by Harvey Fierstein, could conveniently be lumped together as “gay plays.” However, they are surprisingly different. “Mothers and Sons” spends 90 minutes extoling the virtues of acceptance and tolerance, while “Casa Valentina,” the more courageous of the two works, goes beyond the old-fashioned pious pleas for understanding. By doing so, it is a play of depth, daring, and conviction, recalling a seismic shift on Broadway similar to the debuts in the early 90s of Tony Kushner’s “Angels in America” and McNally’s own "Love! Valour! Compassion!" Notice is hereby served. Contemporary theatre has no more need for plays, which handle an audience with kid gloves, moralizing that gays and lesbians are deserving of the same respect as heterosexual audiences.
Years after mourning the loss of his partner, Andre, to AIDS, Cal has slowly and at times torturously found meaning in his life again. Enter André’s Mother, also the title of a 1990 PBS adaptation of McNally’s earlier work of the same name. The television adaptation movingly depicted her appearance in New York to attend her son’s memorial service. McNally re-visits these characters, adjusting dates and setting “Mothers and Sons” some 20 years later. Katherine, ostensibly in New York en route to Europe, appears at Cal’s door with the purported mission of returning Andre’s diary to her son’s former partner.
Still bearing her anger like a torch, Katherine is defiant in her belief that not only did Cal give her son AIDS, but also was the reason for his “turning” gay. She is all the more incensed to find Cal’s stable life on display with his now-husband, Will, and their six-year-old son, Bud. Andre is gone and Cal has not only survived, but flourished and prospered.
Rather than easily dismissing Katherine’s contempt, Cal engages her in a strenuous tête-à-tête, exposing her provincial attitudes and homophobia. The experience of watching the play is akin to attending a debate as to whether or not gay individuals are worthy of all the rights and privileges of straight society.
Though set in 1962 before “Mothers and Sons,” as well as Stonewall, “Casa Valentina” surprisingly feels the more contemporary of the two plays. The setting of the title is a Catskills escape, which in fact existed, for men who yearned for the freedom to exhibit their true nature by dressing and living as women, if only for a weekend. They are willingly catered to and cared for by Rita, the co-owner and wife of George or Valentina, once he adorns himself with the wig, which Rita has lovingly combed and styled. The arrivals, all professionals and mostly married and straight, endure their mundane lives, only because of the opportunities, which await them here.
Enter Charlotte into the cozy company of this retreat. We never see Charlotte out of her female attire and her male “prénom” is never indicated. Having established an organization for the legitimization of transvestites in California, her mission is to convince the women to join with her. Part of Charlotte’s crusade is to adamantly represent to society that transvestites are not homosexuals. She foretells of a future where transvestites are commonly accepted, while homosexuals are still despised and reviled.
The women reason this out, using their male psyches, instead of their more comfortable female identities.
What sets “Casa Valentina” apart from McNally’s “Mothers and Sons” is the realization that the aim is not to seek society’s approval. One cannot watch “Casa Valentina” and not hear the voices of those demanding and fighting for equal rights across the entire LGBT spectrum. Fierstein has given us a play in which the characters do not plead for the understanding of others, but self-determination instead. The alternative, as delivered in “Mothers and Sons,” comes off as quaint and outdated. In this regard, “Casa Valentina” has more in common with McNally’s earlier play, “Love! Valour! Compassion!” which offered no apologies for its gay characters.
By not writing a play about characters’ stalled lives, waiting for acceptance in order to thrive, Fierstein and “Casa Valentina” demand that the theatre of supplication is over. “Mothers and Sons,” which overtly appeals to the audience for tolerance, is better suited to a much earlier time and place in theatre and American social history, somewhere around 1962, the same year “Casa Valentina” boldly proclaims that each of us is in charge of our own futures. Harvey Fierstein has given us a work, which could very well be the foundation upon which new plays and voices in the theatre will stand, grappling with the evolving dynamics particular to the LGBT community.
Val Sherman is an award-winning screenwriter and playwright, living in New York City. He is on the faculty of The International Film Institute of New York. Val received his MFA degree from The School of the Arts at Columbia University. You can visit his web site at www.valsherman.com and follow him on Twitter at @screenwriternyc.