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Sheryl Kaller on Mothers, McNally, and Billy Porter

The director of Broadway’s ''Mothers and Sons'' talks about the universality of Terrence McNally’s latest play and hints at her next project, ''While I Yet Live'', by ''Kinky Boots''' Billy Porter. logo

Mothers and Sons, Terrence McNally's new play now running at the John Golden Theatre, centers around a woman who pays an unannounced visit to her late son's partner, who is now married to another man and has a young son of his own. Director Sheryl Kaller (a Tony nominee for Next Fall) was handpicked by lead producer Tom Kirdahy and McNally from its earliest stages. She has been hooked by the subject matter ever since. Kaller spoke with TheaterMania about her second experience as a director on Broadway, and revealed a sneak peek at While I Yet Live, a play penned by Kinky Boots' Billy Porter that she'll be directing for Primary Stages' fall season.

Mothers and Sons director Sheryl Kaller (far right) with (left to right) playwright Terrence McNally and stars Frederick Weller, Tyne Daly, and Bobby Steggert.
(© David Gordon)

Many directors choose plays with themes that directly relate to their own lives. Is that true for you and this play?

I very much relate to Mothers and Sons in the sense that it's about family. It's about mothers and fathers and how they raise their children, specifically their sons. I just think that the exploration of the generations and the exploration of forgiveness and hope is what really speaks to me about it.

How would your parents' generation have related to Mothers and Sons?

Katharine's (Tyne Daly) generation was my parents' generation. Although my parents raised me more liberally than Katharine raised her son, I feel that Katharine went through the same challenges my parents did raising children in an ever-changing world. A mother like Katharine had to confront having a gay son living through the AIDS crisis. I remember my parents being fearful about my well-being, too. Terrence writes about all of these family dynamics and what it is to live in the world today, what it's like to raise children today, and the exploration of how today's generation of gay men expect to have children, and he does it with such intelligence, wit, honesty, and depth. He never preaches at us.

Your direction of the play makes it a very intimate snapshot of this family. It doesn't feel like actors are reciting lines.

I feel like part of my job is to make my hand invisible in this. It's a very big compliment to me when one can't tell where Terrence begins and I end, or where Tyne begins and Bobby [Steggert] ends. That's my job. Mothers and Sons is such a personal play to everyone because it's so universal in its themes and its scope within the specificity of what Terrence is writing about. It's my job to draw an audience into that, as opposed to just presenting it to [them].

Kinky Boots Tony winner Billy Porter's new play, While I Yet Live, will be directed by Sheryl Kaller this fall for Primary Stages.
(© David Gordon)

Do you only choose to do new plays because of that sense of collaboration?

I've chosen to do new plays in this phase of my career because I love collaborating with the playwright. A few days before we opened we were still putting new lines in. That kind of stuff thrills me to no end. I would not rule out other playwrights. I'm kind of a Bertolt Brecht freak! But at least in the past and right now, I like new plays and musicals and I like having the writer in the room.

Speaking of collaborations, you're working with Billy Porter on While I Yet Live. How did you get involved with that?

Billy Porter has been a friend for a while. When he first started writing plays, I directed a reading of one of them, and our time together was terrific. So when he told me about a play he wanted to write called While I Yet Live, I was kind of there from page one with him. The play is far away from Lola in Kinky Boots, which is a part of Billy's brilliance. Is it far away from the Billy Porter that I know and love? Absolutely not. It comes straight from his heart and his head. It takes place in his hometown; a lot of the characters are based on people he knows and loves, including family members. Billy has a story that he needed to tell and this play really speaks to that. Everything that everyone loves about Mr. Billy Porter is in this play.

What do you want people to take away from Mothers and Sons?

I want people to talk about it at dinner, and I want them to take away that people can change. Sometimes change is hard, though, but if we stay in there and really believe in one another, people can change. I hope that people will be able to come to their own conclusions about what happens the day after we meet these wonderful, rich, exciting, smart, literate characters.

Bobby Steggert and Frederick Weller as married couple Will and Cal, Grayson Taylor as their son, Bud, and Tyne Daly as Katharine in Terrence McNally's Mothers and Sons, directed by Sheryl Kaller, at Broadway's John Golden Theatre.
(© Joan Marcus)