STORY WRITTEN BY TARA LYNN JOHNSON
For Digital First Media
Twenty years after her son’s death, a mother pays an unexpected visit to the apartment of her late son’s partner, Cal, who’s married to another man and has a young son. Still coping with loss and anger, Cal challenges her to confront the truths of their shared past, and a future she never imagined. That’s the story of “Mothers and Sons,” what some have called Terrence McNally’s best play. Nominated for a 2014 Tony award, the play finds characters exploring family and forgiveness.
A famous television mom, four-time Emmy-winner Michael Learned, plays the grieving mother, Katharine. Learned has wanted to perform in a McNally play for a long time because of the work, but also she wanted to get to know him because he’s good friends with her former TV son on “The Waltons,” Richard Thomas. Learned, who played matriarch Olivia Walton on that long-running show, has performed plays by Arthur Miller and Edward Albee and considers McNally, too, one of the greatest American playwrights.
Coming to Philadelphia in winter can present a challenge with the cold and possible snow, but she was game. She said during a telephone interview that she’s enjoying Philly.
“It’s a great city. It has everything New York has without the crowds,” she said. “People are friendly here.”
Her 15-year-old Rat Terrier, Daisy, is not fond of the cold, though.
“She grew up in Kansas — she’s a rescue, but now she’s a Beverly Hills princess,” Learned said. “She comes to rehearsal with me. She sits in her bed and when we take a break, she takes a break. She loves to come to work.”
So does Learned, even though this play is not easy. She said she loves the beginning of rehearsals, then hates the middle week, when struggles and conflicts need to be resolved, lines need to be memorized completely, and the time pressure starts to rise.
The difficulties, though, simply are part of the deal, necessary to get her to where she loves to be — on stage. Learned appreciates the opportunities being on a hit show provided, but she grew up in theater and it’s her true acting love.
“I love the money in TV, but I love the words in theater,” she said. “And the audience participation — when there’s a moment where you’re both suspended in transcendence. There’s nothing like it.”
McNally’s work challenges her because of its language and the fact that Katharine’s all over the place emotionally.
“Katharine’s a complicated woman and it’s a complicated journey,” Learned said. “She’s alone and locked into her ways of thinking, and yet there’s a part of her that’s desperate to connect with her dead son and her son’s lover.”
Learned, a mother of three grown sons, can relate to some of what Katharine feels.
“I can relate to having to let go, either literally, when your son is dead, or metaphorically. The mother is the goddess until the wife comes along, then she’s the mother-in-law or the pain in the ass,” she said. “It’s a painful process for a mother, even if the baby is 25 or 30.”
Learned uses moments from her own life to make her character authentic, but some parts, she’s creating from scratch.
“Some of the stuff Katharine says and does is something I hope I haven’t done,” Learned said.
Being a working actor most of her life and appearing on a variety of shows is something she’s happy to have done, though. In addition to her long-running role in “The Waltons,” Learned appeared in, among other shows, “Nurse,” “Gunsmoke,” “St. Elsewhere,” “Reading Rainbow,” “Law and Order: Special Victims Unit,” “Scrubs,” and even soaps like “One Life to Live” and “General Hospital.” She has graced stages across the country and in New York on Broadway. She likes the variety that especially theater acting has given her.
“I’ve lived so many lifetimes in so many plays,” she said. “To be an actor, you get to be a king, a queen, nice people, bitches.”
And you get to explore relationships and characters like and unlike yourself, like Katharine in “Mothers and Sons.” Learned hopes people will come to experience this drama that offers lighter moments, too, just like life.
“There’s a lot of humor,” she said, “and a lot of hope, which I like.”
IF YOU GO
What: “Mothers and Sons”
When: Previews Feb. 6-8 and 10; opens Feb. 11; runs Tue.-Sun. through March 8
Where: Philadelphia Theatre Company at the Suzanne Roberts Theatre, 480 S. Broad St., Philadelphia.
Tickets: $46-$59; opening night $73
Info.: Call (215) 985-0420 or visit www.PhiladelphiaTheatreCompany.org.