Peter McNally said Beaumont Community Player’s production of “Frankie and Johnny in the Clair de Lune” is excellent. He should know, as it was written by his brother, Terrence, who is considered one the giants of modern American theater.
Peter praised actors Heather Rushing and Jody Reho for their performances opening night. Peter and his wife of 50 years, Vicki, have seen “Frankie and Johnnie” in New York, Houston, Washington and now Beaumont. He also saw the recent Broadway revival with Audra McDonald and Michael Shannon.
“But I still go back to the first one,” he said. “You know, that was Kathy Bates and F. Murray Abraham. He was a good friend of my brother’s and we got to know him pretty well when we go to New York, and they kind of hang out together a lot. So, yeah, he’s a fine person.”
Terrence McNally was born in Florida in 1938, and Peter was born in New York in 1944. The family eventually settled in Corpus Christi, where Terrence’s biggest influence was his high school English teacher, Mrs. McElroy.
Terrence McNally moved to New York to pursue his career in theater, and ended up writing 36 full-length plays, 10 librettos for musicals and four operas. He won Best Play Tony awards for his plays “Love! Valor! Compassion!” and “Masterclass,” as well as Best Book of a Musical Tony’s for “Kiss of the Spiderwoman” and “Ragtime.” In 2019, Terrence was honored with a lifetime achievement Tony. He also won an Emmy for the miniseries, “Andre’s Mother.”
Peter, who lives in Beaumont, said Terrence worked hard for everything he achieved and was a diligent and prolific writer, even as a kid.
“His first love was journalism, and he was editor of the El Tejano, which was the student newspaper at Ray High School,” Peter said. “They used to be over a house on Wednesday night getting get everything ready for the printer. I mean, this is what back when high school is really had newspapers, weekly papers, you know, someone covering sports, someone covering editorial, that it was a neat deal. And I remember all of them would be over at our house, they’d lay it out on the dining room table, you know, that’s when he did layouts. You know, it’s that he didn’t do it on a computer back in those days, you know? So, you know, he just, you know, and he would never,
“You wouldn’t think so, but my brother was a very, very competitive person,” Peter said. “He didn’t like to be second, he wanted to be first. He told me one time, because my college grades weren’t really too good, he said, ‘Why would you even want to go to college if you didn’t want to make all A’s? You’re wasting your money.’ And he really meant it, that was coming from his heart. So, he and I are different that way.”
Terrence had a burning desire for the arts, Peter said, whether it be music, plays, movies, opera, on which he was an expert, and appeared on the Metropolitan Opera radio broadcast as a regular commentator.
“He got so good, you could play a little bit of an aria from any opera, and he say,’ Oh, yeah, that was so-and-so in 1934 at La Scala.’ It was amazing, his knowledge of opera.”
Petersaidwritersareinquisitive, and they’re always looking out for new material.
“I’ve seen (Terrence) on the subway when I’ve been with him, you know, he pulls out a little spiral notebook and writes things down,” Peter said. “‘I saw lady there; I saw a man there that gave me an idea. Or, you know, I saw that purse that lady has, and I thought of something.’”
“Frankie and Johnny,” which features a diner waitress and a short order cook, grew out of Terrence’s observations of New York in the mid-’80s.
“He said, ‘How many lonely New Yorkers there were in 1987,” Peter said. “When they were all lined up to buy to buy a movie and get a pizza or an ice cream? How many of them were single going home with no partner — straight, gay, whatever it is. New York was a sad place during that time, because the economy was in the dumps and AIDS was a huge crisis. I think he just felt an urge to write about that loneliness.
“The play is about relationships and connection. That’s what I got out of that play. (It’s) about two people trying to find out about each other to see if they could make it as a couple, you know?”
While “Frankie and Johnny” was written during the AIDS crisis, where new relationships had an element of fear, much of that same trepidation can be found in the wake of the COVID pandemic.
“There’s so many people in New York, they’re probably there by themselves, trying to make it one way or another,” Peter said “And, they’re very vulnerable to anything like that, and they probably can’t reach out to too many people. I think New York can be a big, cruel, lonely city if you don’t know somebody or have some resources.
“I know when Terrence was a young man, he lived in a small basement apartment, it was one of these rent control apartments. They weren’t much so he paid his dues.”
Peter said Terrence, who died of a COVID-19 in 2020, would have loved BCP’s production. Terrence was a fan of community theater and would visit the Corpus Christi theater whenever he returned to Texas.
“If it wasn’t for community theater, there would be no Broadway,” Peter said. “That’s what gets people interested in going to New York and seeing Broadway or going to the London West End or whatever.”
While Peter had no theatrical inclinations himself, he enjoys theater as a consumer.
“With having a brother in it, I really got kind of involved,” he said. “My wife and I, we go to New York at least every other couple of years, and he could get tickets to about any show he wanted, because he knew all the people in the industry. Broadway is magical in my opinion; you don’t get that feeling in a movie theater. You get it with live actors and live musicians. And I think it’s a big part of America that we need to keep promoting, that keeps the theater alive.
“You get goosebumps, you know, the first number in this curtain goes up, you kind of get goosebumps I have. That’s happened many times to me. There’s nothing like it. And it happens whether it’s one of Terrence’s plays or not.
Terrence McNally died on March 29, 2020, in the early days of the pandemic. He had survived two bouts of lung cancer and also had emphysema, Peter said, so he was vulnerable.
Peter McNally is full of anecdotes about Terrence and is happy to share them.
“Anytime I can talk about my brother, I enjoy it,” he said. “I’m very proud of him.”
“Franke and Johnny in the Clair de Lune” continues through Nov.5. BCP is located at 4155 Laurel Ave. in Beaumont. For more, visit beaumontstages.com.
This story first ran in the Nov. 4, 2022 Art of Living section of the Beaumont Enterprise.