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Dead Men's Tales 

At Redwood Curtain and HSU

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The story behind Terrence McNally's 2014 play Mothers and Sons first emerged in the playwright's 1988 film André's Mother, in which Katharine Gerard, the eponymous mother, meets Cal, André's lover, at the memorial service for her son.

Fast forward a couple of decades (McNally took a little creative license with the passage of time) and Cal (Gary Sommers) is now a successful money manager, married to husband Will (Sam Greenspan), who's 15 years his junior, and father to 6-year-old Bud (Benjamin Smith). But the past is about to be revisited upon the family in ways that none of them could have imagined when Katharine (Bernadette Cheyne) arrives on their doorstep.

Katharine is very much a woman of her time. She married a man she didn't love to escape her Long Island childhood home, and never really understood or accepted her son's life ("He was not gay when he came to New York"). She's looking to Cal for something, but doesn't have the vocabulary or the cultural context to navigate a family of two husbands and a child. Cal, confused, frustrated and drawn back down a memory lane he thought he'd left behind, has no idea how to respond. Will retreats into a stereotype of the politically correct millennial gay man, which highlights the couple's age difference as much as the cultural chasm between Will and Katharine.

Bernadette Cheyne delivers an almost pitch-perfect portrait of a lost, scared woman who has been playing the part of loyal wife and mother all her life and now finds herself with nothing to define her. Gary Sommers' performance as Cal is heart-wrenching its conveyance of the terrible losses of the AIDS epidemic and the overwhelming joy of becoming the parent he never thought he could be. Sam Greenspan is wonderfully spiky as he pokes and prods at Katharine, mocking her in a game of competitive snobbery while confronting the fact that he's once more competing with the ghost of André. Benjamin Smith as Bud is a natural, shining a light into the darkness of the story and reminding us of the restorative powers of milk and cookies.

The scene and lighting design by Jared Sorenson make excellent use of Redwood Curtain's sometimes challenging space, and Kristin Mack's sound design sets the mood with appropriate selections like "Anything Goes." Director Jyl Hewston skillfully guides the strong cast on a rollercoaster ride through anger, sadness, loss and, ultimately, hope for the future. It is a challenging piece, running an hour and 45 minutes with no intermission, but the cast and crew more than rise to that challenge. Highly recommended.

Mothers and Sons plays at Redwood Curtain Theatre through May 8. Call 443-7688 or visit www.redwoodcurtain.com.

Sarah Ruhl wrote a play in fourth grade that took the form of a courtroom debate between an isthmus and an island. This is a good indicator of the kind of mind-bending journey Ruhl takes us on in the Humboldt State University production of her 2007 Dead Man's Cell Phone. Suspension of the "normal" concepts of time and place — not to mention life and death — are a prerequisite. But don't let that put you off — the piece is part Greek drama, part Lewis Carroll and wholly engrossing from beginning to ... what? Certainly not a finite end.

The play opens with Jean (Stephanie Lemon) and Gordon (Anthony De Page) at separate tables in an otherwise deserted café. Jean is finishing a bowl of soup (the significance of which becomes apparent later) and Gordon appears to be quietly reading. His cellphone rings. And rings. And rings. He doesn't answer or even acknowledge it. Eventually, an irritated Jean marches over and demands he answer it. Still no response. At which point, she realizes he never will because he's dead. And we have already begun to suspend our disbelief, because the call does not go to voicemail.

So, we're not surprised when Jean answers the phone. We're not surprised when she takes messages for a dead man. We're not surprised when she shows up at Gordon's funeral and starts a conversation with his mother, Mrs. Gottlieb (Constance Hill). We're not surprised when she accepts an invitation to dine with Mrs. Gottlieb, her other son Dwight (Jesse Benefiel) and Gordon's widow Hermia (Madison Burgett-Feagin). But we're full-on intrigued when she arranges a meeting with Gordon's mistress (Caitlin Hatfield). With every conversation, she builds a more fantastical backstory that somehow gives everyone what they want emotionally, without any basis in fact. This is the essence of Ruhl's premise: Our cellphones have so disconnected us from reality, we no longer comprehend the difference between the cyberworld and the real world, the private and the public.

The all-student cast delivers a masterful performance under Michael Thomas' direction, moving effortlessly between soliloquies, intimate tête-à-têtes and ensemble pieces. Lemon is an assured guide, drawing us along with her as she surprises herself as well as the audience with her decisions. Burgett-Feagin, Benefiel and Hill are by turns frightening and intriguing as the Greek chorus of a family. DePage skillfully draws us into Gordon's limbo world, injecting facts that threaten to unravel our collective fantasies, and Hatfield toys with us artfully in her quest to be remembered as Gordon's one true love. In addition to the actors, the production design, lighting and sound teams, as well as the countless other behind-the-scenes individuals, can all be proud of their work on this production.

What are you going to do next time you hear a cellphone ringing and ringing and ringing?

Dead Man's Cell Phone plays at Humboldt State University's Gist Hall Thursday, April 28 through Saturday, April 30 at 7:30 p.m., with a 2 p.m. matinee on Sunday, May 1. Visit www.hsustage.blogspot.com.

Continuing

Creepy, campy Bat Boy the Musical keeps up the bloody fun Fridays and Saturdays at 8 p.m., and Saturdays and Sundays at 2 p.m. through May 7. Call 786-5483 or visit www.ferndalerep.org.

Upcoming

Dell'Arte students are down to clown April 28 to 30 at the Carlo Theater with Deep End of the Fool, a parade of pairs and trios of comic characters. Call 668-5663 or visit www.dellarte.com.

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Pat Bitton

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