Montville’s Barn Theatre kicks off its new season with a new production of Mothers and Sons, a play by Terrence McNally that tells the story of Katherine Gerard, a woman who comes to New York City to revisit a painful past marked by the loss of her son to the AIDS crisis. There she finds her son’s partner, Cal, and meets his new family—Cal’s husband, Will, and their young son, Bud.
The cast of The Barn production includes Greg Allen, who plays Cal Porter, and Scott Baird as Will Ogden. Jodi Freeman Maloy stars as Katherine, and Liam Sheffield plays the couple’s son, Bud.
“Casting this show was a daunting task,” director Tom Schopper explains. “The three adult characters have such an enormous amount of dialog and go on such emotional roller coasters. Finding actors who were up to that challenge was the first task. Seeing how they looked and felt together was equally important.”
Located in Montville, the Barn Theatre was founded some 90 years ago by Arthur Stringer. It opened to the public with The Narrow Door, a four-act drama by Stringer.
Mothers and Sons marks the beginning of Tom Schopper’s 23rd season with The Barn. Schopper is a man of many talents, who by day manages the legal department of a major magazine publishing company in New York City. By evening, he spends time with his own family (he has two sons of his own). He’s also a photographer and an intrinsic part of the New Jersey theater community as a performer, photographer, actor and board member.
Presently, Schopper is on the board of trustees at The Barn, and also works with other theaters, in particular 4th Wall Theatre in Bloomfield where he met Greg Allen. Allen has worked in the entertainment industry for more than 25 years. “I moved to New York to be an actor,” Allen says, “and much like the character I play in Mothers and Sons, I ended up in a corporate America job for 13 years. Luckily, I found my way back to my passion and started performing again in 2000.” Currently he manages the Irvington Town Hall Theater in New York.
Scott Baird plays Will Ogden in Mothers and Sons. When he’s not performing, Baird works as an aide for children with special needs in Parsippany, N.J., or runs the drama club program at Montville Township High School. He met Schopper and Schopper’s wife when he first started working at The Barn. The director photographed Baird for the lobby display.
As they prepared for the opening night on Sept. 8, Tom Schopper, Greg Allen and Scott Baird took time to talk about the show—its meaning and message particularly in today’s political climate.
Why did the Barn Theatre choose to kick off its new season with Mothers & Sons?
Tom Schopper: The Barn always looks to choose plays and musicals that will appeal to our audiences, while at the same time fitting in with the other shows in our season. For this season, the other four plays were all much more traditional, well-known titles like Fiddler on the Roof, Brighton Beach Memoirs, The 39 Steps, and Annie. So, The Barn wanted to look for a show that was more contemporary—a newer, more recently on Broadway title—one that would be appealing to actors and give our audiences [something to think about]. Ultimately, Terrence McNally’s Mothers and Sons was selected. I am thrilled to have been given the chance to direct it!
Greg Allen: This is the first show I’ve ever done at The Barn. I think [that choosing Mothers and Sons] was such a smart move considering the current climate of where the country is around equality and gay rights.
Scott Baird: [Mothers and Sons] is about change and acceptance, something that we need more of in the current political/social climate. [The show] hits on so many hot topics—the AIDS epidemic, gay marriage, parenting, loss of a loved one—and addresses them in a way that everyone can relate to.
How is this production of Mothers and Sons different or unique? Why would people who’ve seen the play on Broadway want to see it again, at The Barn?
TS: A different director and different actors would definitely bring their own unique take to any play. Mothers and Sons, in particular, touches on so many different topics, [those mentioned by Scott Baird, as well as] grief, despair, solace, compassion, hope, [and also] change. Those are all themes that come up in this play, and we all approach [them] in very individual ways in our own lives. And so, that shapes how the actors and I have approached this play, too.
Also, when Mothers and Sons first played on Broadway in 2014, marriage equality was not yet the law of the land. [Now that it is, its future] seems unsure, especially in today’s unsettled political climate. So, people who saw Mothers and Sons on Broadway in 2014 would be seeing it through an entirely different worldview today.
GA: I loved this show on Broadway. Terrence McNally’s words about what the gay community endured in the late 1980s and 1990s punched me in the gut. That said, when you do a play that has already been on Broadway, you’re not trying to replicate what was done. You have the incredible words of the playwright, but a director and his team bring their own vision to the piece (complete with the set design). Plus, different actors have their own interpretation of the character. I purposely haven’t watched any videos of the actor that played Cal on Broadway, as I want to show an audience how I perceive Cal.
SB: Every show I have done has been different, even the shows I have done multiple times. It is all about what the director, designers, and actors bring to the table. Each of us comes from different walks of life. [Watching] that merge and evolve into something beautiful on stage is amazing. The creative energy of the rehearsal process becomes infectious and allows for us, the actors, to play and discover new layers of the characters we are portraying.
Why do you think plays like Mothers and Sons are still important, relevant, in particular nowadays?
TS: I touched on this a little bit before, but the themes of this play are so universal, while at the same time being so individually personal. I think that maybe especially because of this current political climate, being aware of and attuned to how unsettled things are is really important. How people treat each other, handle grief and loss, how [they] do or don’t adapt to change or allow themselves to grow and evolve (or don’t)…those are all things that are important and relevant, maybe especially nowadays.
GA: When this show was first done on Broadway, things felt positive in the gay community. I was able to marry my husband, whom I’ve been with for 17 years. It felt good in the audience watching the show on Broadway. Just three years later, I’m uneasy again. I feel there are shifts in the country that could take my marriage away. It’s not a great feeling to have as you go through your daily life. I think this show represents so much of the country we live in. [In Mothers and Sons] Katherine Gerard is not a bad person. She is like many people in the world who can’t comprehend two men living together as husband and husband [because] it’s simply not part of how they were raised, of who they are. Plus, they can’t handle change. Plays like Mothers and Sons continue to show the world [that] gay couples are really no different than any other couples. It’s important for theater companies to continue to produce these plays and writers to tell these stories, to show how similar we all are—just people who want to love and be loved.
SB: Theater is a great way to display thoughts and ideas in a bigger sense, to open people’s eyes to topics that might be [considered] taboo or [disregarded]. Mothers and Sons talks about those topics and allows for the conversation to start. It allows for us to better understand an epidemic that was pushed aside for so long and denied for years. I am fortunate to be a part of this show and help start that conversation.
Why do you think it’s still important to remember the AIDS crisis? Do you think we can still learn from it? Can we learn from history, in general?
TS: For all that has been accomplished and for as far as we have come, truth is that the AIDS crisis still goes on. It is different, to be sure, than it was when these characters first interacted 20 years ago, but people are still dying of AIDS even in 2017. Knowing that history and learning from it are still so important. At its core, this play is really about change and how each of us deals with change differently. Understanding how others deal with change helps us understand each other better, I think. And with so much divisiveness in the country today, showing compassion and understanding has taken on such an important role.
GA: Terrence McNally based this play on a small piece he had written in the middle of the AIDS crisis and returned to it 20 years later to write the play. It’s strange how it almost feels like a history piece though all of that wasn’t that long ago. The play also reminds us that AIDS is not over. I think it’s very important to know our history, to learn from it, and to allow history to change our way of thinking. This play is truly about change and how it affects each one of us.
SB: From this show we can learn how to become a more empathetic society. History is something that we cannot run away from. We must embrace our successes as well as learn from our failures, [and try not to] make the same mistakes again. Being one of the young members of this production, I do not remember the effects of the AIDS epidemic, but by doing this show, as well as some others, I have learned a lot about [the AIDS crisis] and the effects it had on a community that I identify with. We can’t go back and change the history of the AIDS epidemic, but we can do our part to impart change and guidance to avoid it, or any other type of epidemic, from occurring again.
Could you share with us any behind-the-scenes stories?
TS: One of the things I love about working with the actors on Mothers and Sons is the amount of thoughtfulness that they have brought to this show and their characters. For example, the gay couple, Cal and Will, actually do not have a lot of stage time together – they each have meaty scenes with Katharine, but they don’t have a lot of stage time with just the two of them. Yet, they are supposed to have been a couple for 11 years. So, we’ve spent lots of time just talking among ourselves about who these characters are, finding some interesting back stories to help drive and motivate the dialog. We also did some fun things, like pose for some “fake family photographs” with the couple and with their son, so that we can have some actual photos of them together as a family on the set. I love including little “carrots” like that! We’ll see if anyone else [other than the actors] notices them!
GA: This play is different from many others [in the sense that there are no blackouts, no transitions between scenes.] Each blackout represents a shift in time, in mood. Actors have to think about what happens during those blackouts and how they enter the next scene in another frame of mind. We don’t get that. Instead, we get on this 90-minute long roller coaster. [It’s like] one continuous scene [during which] your emotions follow through as the conversation changes. It can be hard for us, actors. And so we have jokes among ourselves about how we could change the entire course of the play if we end up in the wrong monologue at any given time.
SB: Playing a married couple with Greg [Allen] has caused us to fight like a married couple, mainly over a throw blanket. As weird as that sounds, it has brought us new, more playful, moments in the show. We hope that both straight and gay couples will relate to it. [While working on the show] we all have become a family. We trust each other and are there to lift each other up [whenever needed]. That’s the beauty of theater. I am so fortunate to be a part of this show and to work with these talented people.
Any closing thoughts?
TS: Mothers and Sons is a beautiful, poignant play that should resonate with many different people for many different reasons. This cast is wonderful. I really hope people come out and join us on our journey!
GA: There is some school of thought that the LGBT community loves going to the theater. Since this publication is geared to those readers, I’d like to say I hope they will seek out theaters across New Jersey that continue to share our stories. There are so many theaters in our state and when they take on the challenge of sharing our voices (which sometimes may cause others to stay away from that particular show), it would be great for us to help fill those audiences as a way of thanking those groups for standing up for us and making our voices heard on stage for many to hear.
SB: Support the arts in whatever capacity you can!
Mothers and Sons opens at The Barn on Sept. 8, 2017. Check out the show and learn more about the Barn Theatre.
Find out more about Tom Schopper’s photography work on Facebook.
Visit Greg Allen online.
Alina Oswald is a writer, photographer and author of Journeys Through Darkness: A Biography of AIDS. Contact her online at alinaoswald.com.