Terrence McNally: Looking at AIDS Survivors

Playwright Terrence McNally is so busy he never calls from home. He’s at a pay phone somewhere in New York, he’s at the theater, he’s anywhere but relaxing with nothing to do. One of the nation’s premier playwrights, McNally is currently working on the book for a musical version of “The Kiss of the Spider Woman.”

TV audiences will get a chance to sample McNally’s work Wednesday at 10 p.m. on KCET when his one-hour play “Andre’s Mother” will be shown on “American Playhouse.”

Commissioned expressly for “American Playhouse,” “Andre’s Mother” is the story of what happens after somebody dies of AIDS. It is a tale about the mother (Sada Thompson), lover (Richard Thomas) and grandmother (Sylvia Sidney) of a young gay man named Andre.

In an interview with Sharon Bernstein, McNally talked about the disease’s other victims--the survivors.


Q: How did “Andre’s Mother” come about?

A: The Manhattan Theatre Club produced a revue about a year-and-a-half ago called “Urban Blight,” for which they asked 20 or 30 American playwrights to produce short sketches about the ills and pressures of living in New York. Mine ended up being about AIDS.

The sketch that the film grew out of was about 10 to 15 minutes long. “American Playhouse” approached me about expanding it, and I was delighted to do it because I felt the short piece was really the basis for a longer one.

Q: What is the focus of the play?


A: This play is about what AIDS is doing to human relationships. It is not about a person with AIDS.

It’s about the effect of AIDS on three people: Andre’s mother, his lover and his grandmother. Andre himself does not appear in the play.

If I decided to make it about someone with AIDS, it would have been a very different piece.

Q: Why did you decide to write about the survivors?


A: I was driving through Balboa Park in San Diego, and I saw a group of people holding white balloons and then releasing them all at once. I knew immediately it was an AIDS memorial.

The balloons symbolized the release of the soul of the person who died. But for the people still left on Earth, the ordeal was just beginning.

Other playwrights have had characters who have AIDS, but I was interested in the impact on others. Andre dealt with AIDS through the physical suffering, and now these people have the emotional suffering it’s caused them.

And I very much wanted to write about a mother who couldn’t connect with her own son and a young man (Andre’s lover, Cal,) who couldn’t connect with his own mother.


The play is about Andre’s mother because she couldn’t get along with her own mother, she can’t deal with her son, can’t deal with her son’s homosexuality.

She gets a call in the middle of the night that her son is dead. She has to form a relationship with a stranger, Cal. Finally, AIDS and death do not allow her to hide any more. So many people don’t want to face it. Well, this is about a woman who is forced to face it.

Q: Have you lost someone close to AIDS? Is the play autobiographical?

A: I’ve certainly had friends who I’ve lost in the past years, and I’ve certainly known mothers who were unable to deal with the loss of their children for all sorts of reasons. With me, writing is 60% imagination, 30% people you know and 10% you don’t know where it comes from. Why I chose to write about Andre’s mother, when I could have easily written about Andre and Cal, I don’t know.


It’s not an autobiographical piece. None of my friends are going to see it and say, “That’s about his mother; that’s his lover.

Q: You have described the play as “confrontational,” and the subject matter is fairly sensitive. Did you have any clashes with PBS over the script?

A: The only rewrites were made in the interest of making the script better. There were no content problems.

Q: Is writing for “American Playhouse” different from writing for the commercial networks?


A: “American Playhouse” is very supportive of writers. That’s really why writers like to write for “American Playhouse” for very little money. They care about making your play, your script, not some network production. We’re treated like playwrights, not like fodder for some machine.

This will be my piece. It’s obviously a collaboration between me, the directors and the actors, but no one has changed my script. No one was hired to “punch up a scene,” as they say. It’s the closest you can get to working at the theater.

Q: What will people take away with them after watching “Andre’s Mother?”

A: I hope they’ll be more generous, and I hope actually that if someone sees this and there’s someone they haven’t called in a long time, they will call them. And it doesn’t have to be someone dying of AIDS or a mother or father. But just that they make the call and realize that life is brief, it’s not a given.


I may think I have inalienable rights to be alive and happy but I don’t-life is a blessing.