During the late ’80s to mid-’90s, few plays expressed both the sorrow and gallows-humor grit of the early AIDS era more pointedly than those of Terrence McNally. In Lips Together, Teeth Apart along with A Perfect Ganesh and Love! Valor! Compassion!, he created characters living with AIDS and others trying to move forward with memories of those they’d lost, be they sons, brothers or lovers. At 74, four-time Tony-winner McNally knows whereof he speaks. He’s lost two lovers to AIDS, the actor Robert Drivas in 1986 and then in 2000 Gary Bonasorte, a playwright and cofounder of the AIDS Community Research Initiative of America.

Those themes of loss—but also of forgiveness and redemption—come up once again in his new play, Mothers and Sons, a five-hankie job if ever there was one, currently world-premiering at the Bucks County Playhouse in New Hope, Pennsylvania, through June 23. Tyne Daly, who’s probably best known for TV’s Cagney & Lacey, and who earned raves for a 2011 starring turn in McNally’s Master Class, stars here as a cold, WASPy mother who mysteriously comes back into the life of her son’s ex-lover 23 years after the son has died of AIDS. McNally, currently happily married to Thomas Kirdahy, a lawyer 25 years his junior, talked with POZ about his very long life in the theater, in a changing time for gays and in a world where he simply can’t seem to catch a break from New York Times chief theater critic Ben Brantley.

You wrote a 1990 PBS teleplay called Andre’s Mother about this same woman, Katharine, who can’t seem to grieve the death of her son. And now here she is in your new play, 23 years later, seemingly stalking Andre’s long-ago lover, who now has a new husband and a son of his own. Heavy stuff. How did this new play come about?
Well, Bucks County Playhouse told me that Tyne Daly wanted to work with them and was interested in my making a stage adaption of Andre’s Mother. So I watched the teleplay and said to myself, “What’s the point of going back 25 years when so much has happened since?” So I wrote a totally new play. I guess you could call it a sequel. I’m no stranger to the suffering AIDS has caused. I lost a loved one to AIDS before I wrote the original Andre’s Mother, and then I lost another in 2000. But still I’d say my plays are seldom autobiographical. Well, they’re emotionally autobiographically.

Tyne Daly plays this emotionally frigid woman with stunning depth and precision. The suspense of when she will finally break down is almost unbearable. Was this woman based on your first lover’s mother?
Sort of. But basically she’s a made-up character because I never met my first lover’s mother. There was so much shame and fear then. I know people even older than me who, when their parents came to town, the partners would have to move out. The games people played in those days. It’s like in this new play, when Katharine is horrified to hear that her son’s ex-lover put her son’s first and last name on the AIDS Quilt. Parents would be furious back then when The New York Times mentioned AIDS in an obituary.

You’ve lived through several decades of both gay life and AIDS in New York City. What’s that been like?
Mainly I feel a sense of wonder and pride at the enormous changes in everybody. When I first came to New York from Texas in 1955 as a gay man, I was 17. Gay bars were in basements, unmarked firetraps. They were like the speakeasies of the 1920s—you felt you were breaking the law by going there. And now, in my lifetime, Tom and I are legally married, and in this new play, the couple even has a child. Gay life has changed, and AIDS is a huge part of that. Gay pride and AIDS are connected, the way the community came together because of AIDS. I don’t think there was much of a gay community before AIDS.

Has it been hard living through the deaths of two lovers?
It’s devastating. But clearly I wouldn’t have written this play if I didn’t want to show that life can go on. When Robert died, I didn’t expect to meet Gary, and when Gary died, I didn’t expect to meet Tom. So that makes me an optimist. What am I supposed to do? Live with devastation and anger and fear, or do I do something about it? [Pauses; laughs.] You know, it’s easier for me to write about these things than to talk about them. But I have friends who have not started a relationship since they lost a partner to AIDS. When I first met Tom, I was embarrassed. I wondered if Gary’s friends were asking, How could I have loved Gary so much if I could love someone else? But I would never say there are rules for life, that if you truly love someone you can never love again.

What would you most like to tell young gay people today?
I can’t believe they practically don’t know about the early AIDS years or things like police raids and being furtive. They have such a freedom about them. I admire that, but I hope they read up on their history. It’s an exciting time now to be a gay man or woman. AIDS is not cured, but people are living with it now, which was not a factor for Robert or Gary. As for being gay, my parents didn’t approve, but they didn’t disown me. I’ve always been out and proud. I hope expressions like “out and proud” become archaic!

Do you think this new play will come to New York?
I have absolutely no idea. People are coming down from New York now to see it. This is a short run here, so I’d absolutely like it to see a longer life.

You also have a new play opening in Manhattan at the Pearl Theatre in November, And Away We Go, correct?
Yes. It’ a time-traveling play about actors, going from a performance of The Oresteia in Athens in 300 B.C. to a contemporary company that puts on classic plays to the 1956 American premiere of Waiting for Godot in Coral Gables, Florida. I’d say it’s a comedy of seriousness.

Perhaps chief Times theater critic Ben Brantley will like this one, because he’s been hard on all your plays of recent years.
Well, I can’t think about that when I’m writing, though of course his reviews affect the future life of a play. I’ve never met him face-to-face. I don’t want to know the critics. I’ve certainly seen him in person. And he’s on TV enough.

How do you deal with bad reviews like that?
You pick yourself up and brush yourself off. If I stop writing, I deny myself the experience of being with good actors, which is what is important to me. The rest is business. I’ve been fortunate. I’ve had very successful plays. I’m not a wealthy man, but I’m comfortable. I think I can make it to the grave without Tom and I having to beg in the streets. Of course it’d be great if I had more support from Brantley. But I love my life, and I’m not going to let someone who doesn’t love my work take that away from me. I’m always shocked when people ask me when I’m going to retire. Retiring is when you stop doing a job that you hated. I’m self-employed!

Photo Credit: Mandee Kuenzle/Bucks County Playhouse