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Velina Brown’s performance lights up NCTC’s ‘Mothers and Sons’

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Velina Brown and Andrew Nance appear in New Conservatory Theatre Center’s regional premiere of Terrence McNally’s “Mothers and Sons.” (Courtesy Lois Tema)

The title of Terrence McNally’s “Mothers and Sons” (now at New Conservatory Theatre Center in a regional premiere) is a bit of a misnomer. It’s actually about one very particular mother, Katherine — haughty, prickly, abrasive — and Cal, the lover (now happily married) of her late son, André, who died of AIDS years ago.

And it’s about the traumatic aftereffects, and the ongoing gravity, of the AIDS epidemic.

And of course it’s about the relationship between Katherine and André, too.

It is not a comedy, although director Arturo Catricala seems to want to turn it into one some of the time.

Katherine (Velina Brown) has appeared, unannounced, at Cal’s upscale Manhattan apartment, presumably to return André’s journal, which Cal had previously sent her. Neither has had the heart to read it.

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But elegant, aloof and apparently homophobic Katherine clearly has other thoughts on her mind, as she coolly peruses Cal’s apartment (nice set by Kuo-Hao Lo), tightly wrapped in a fur coat. And they are not happy thoughts.

For his part, eager-to-please Cal (Andrew Nance, who has some nice, heartfelt moments but often seems more like an uncomfortable actor than an uncomfortable character) doesn’t know how to handle this unexpected visitor.

It’s to McNally’s credit that he has created a woman who is not only a cipher to Cal but, for a long time, to us: Katherine is multi-layered, unpredictable, revealing herself so gradually over the course of the play that you may end up, to your own surprise, feeling her pain.

Such a character would not work without an actor like Brown in the role, who proves once again that she is as adept at drama as she is at comedy and musicals. She digs down deep to conjure a powerful portrait of an extraordinarily complex and unhappy woman, with never trace of sentimentality.

Still, this would have been a better play had it been a two-hander; the relationship between Katherine and Cal is so intense, so heavily laden, for both of them, with secrets and painful memories and unanswered questions, that the presence of Cal’s husband and young son are annoying distractions that dilute what could have been a taut, tight drama.

Additionally problematic: under Catricala’s unevenly paced direction, both Cal’s husband and the kid are presented as cartoonishly hyper and inauthentic. They seem to be in an entirely different play, perhaps a farce. McNally’s themes deserve more respect.

Mothers and Sons
Where: New Conservatory Theatre Center, 25 Van Ness Ave., S.F.
When: 8 p.m. Wednesdays–Saturdays, 2 p.m. Sundays; closes April 3
Tickets: $15 to $35
Contact: (415) 861-8972, www.nctcsf.org

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