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Anne Hartley Pfohl Returns

Mothers and Sons at BUA

Anne Hartley Pfohl returns to the Buffalo United Artists stage this week after a long hiatus to star in Mothers and Sons, a hot new play by Terrence McNally. Pfohl plays a woman who lost her son to AIDS 20 years ago. As the play begins, she is paying a visit to her son’s former lover, a man she has not seen since the memorial service. Matthew Crehan Higgins asked Pfohl some questions about the play and her acting career, originally intended for the BUA Facebook page. Her answers were uncommonly thoughtful and we have decided to share an abbreviated version here.

HIGGINS—As a major fixture in the company’s history, the BUA audience is excited to see you return for the first time since the 2003 production of Nicky Silver’s dark comedy Pterodactyls. What about this role brought you back?

PFOHL—Actually, I think Sordid Lives slipped into those 11 years somewhere. BUA produced that play here in the Alleyway as well. We were laughing about that show the other night in rehearsal for Mothers and Sons; Brian Riggs and I were in it together; Chris Kelly directed and it was a great show and a great cast. What brought me back this time was the fact that Javier asked me, and I learned many years ago in 1993 that it’s better to say yes to Javier, because he is usually right, especially when it comes to theater. Javier offered me a role in a show in 1993 and I declined, because I was so “busy.” Of course, the show went on to be a huge success, and won all kinds of Artie Awards and I was left saying “Woulda, coulda, shoulda...” The role of the mother in this play, Mothers and Sons, is also very, very special to me, because she is featured in another Terrence McNally play, a short play from the 1989, Andre’s Mother. BUA produced Andre’s Mother years ago in an evening of one-act plays. I played the title role, Timothy Finnegan played Cal, Katie White played his sister, and Peter McNally played Cal’s father. These are all characters we either meet again or hear about in Mothers and Sons.

HIGGINS—Is it true that the company had to wait for Tyne Daly to say she was not coming to Buffalo to do this show before you could officially accept the role? Were you a Cagney & Lacey fan?

PFOHL—My understanding from Javier is that this was a clause specified by Terrence McNally in his contract with the company that handles the rights for the play, Dramatist’s Play Service. Mr. McNally dedicated the play to Tyne Daly, who originated the role at the Bucks County Playhouse, and then on Broadway. Javier told me Mr. McNally wants her to have the right of first refusal for this play, no matter where it is being produced. Luckily for me, Ms. Daly was either busy or, for some reason, didn’t want to do the show in Buffalo. Javier received an email from her agent stating, “Tyne graciously passes.” Whew! That was a close one!

I did watch Cagney and Lacey religiously when it first aired. I thought Sharon Gless as Chris Cagney was very hot, as was Meg Foster in the role before her. I always liked Mary Beth Lacey too, Tyne Daly’s role; she was the moral compass of the show. You always learned a lot from her bedtime chats with her husband, Harvey.

HIGGINS—How has your character in this play changed in the time since the loss of her son? How has the world changed?

PFOHL—We find out that she has been through a lot since Andre died. Nevertheless, Katharine is stuck in her grief and her memories with no means of moving on, in part, because she has too many unanswered questions, and she still doesn’t fully understand or appreciate the circumstances of her son’s death. She is a woman who lost her son, her only child, a man who, in her mind, led a secret life and died of a mysterious illness. Her worldview seems almost anachronistic to us in 2015. At the age of 70, Katharine still lives the conventions of her time, and has no context for the world she steps into when she enters Cal and Will’s apartment on Central Park West.

Mothers and Sons shows us something we have never seen about gay life before on stage—a married gay couple raising a son together. In this play, we see the modern realities of gay relationships—gay families in particular—juxtaposed against the historical period (one that I lived through as a lesbian) when we had no rights, no recognition for our relationships and families. Katharine represents the mothers, fathers, and families whose sons never lived to see the incredible changes in our rights, and the level of acceptance and privilege we have attained after so many years of struggle.

HIGGINS—You won the Artie for your role(s) in Jeffrey, an uproarious comedy written and performed at the height of the epidemic. What was the importance of that humor at the time?

PFOHL—It was the mid-1990s and no one was laughing about AIDS. There was no cocktail, no antiretroviral combination therapy, and people were still dying at an alarming rate. AIDS was not the chronic, manageable illness that it is today for many. For playwright Paul Rudnick to express in Jeffrey jokes, frustrations, and the absurdities of life during the early epidemic was very daring, almost outrageous in that day. That was the magic of Jeffrey.

HIGGINS—And now 20 years later, you are taking on the role of a woman still processing her loss during that same epidemic. What is the importance of that reflection now?

PFOHL—Katharine gives voice to those who lost people to AIDS and may not have received much sympathy for their pain. It can be difficult for those of us who have been shunned or even abandoned to understand that people like Katharine, who turned away from the reality of AIDS, still experienced inexpressible pain and grief. Yet they did, and they still do. I think Katharine speaks for those who might have hidden their loss, perhaps left so much of it unspoken and unexamined, and struggled alone while the rest of us mourned openly and together.

I hope Mothers and Sons reminds us that AIDS is not over, not only because it is forever part of a shared history, and shaped our social and political movements in such sweeping and permanent ways, but also because people are still becoming infected with HIV. I don’t think the Marriage Equality movement would have even happened, let alone succeeded, without the AIDS movement, and perhaps that’s because I have lived through and been part of them both.

HIGGINS—Will the audience have to wait another 11 years to see you again?

PFOHL—I hope not. I’ve fallen in love with acting again, thanks to this wonderful group of people I am working with, and the support of my wife and family. I hope opportunities will still come my way.

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