Birth mother and son form new relationship on and off stage

2009-08-10T23:45:00Z Birth mother and son form new relationship on and off stageBy JEFF KORBELIK / Lincoln Journal Star
August 10, 2009 11:45 pm  • 

"Mom ..."

It was just a word; part of a line in a Sam Shepard play.

But it meant so much more.

The young actor who said it froze during the rehearsal, a wave of emotion sweeping over him.

And the middle-aged actress he addressed ... well, she was struggling, too, with tears in her eyes and a lump in her throat.

"They just shook when they looked at each other," play director Judy Hart recalled later. "A shiver went through both of them and the room. It was this really big cosmic moment."

Just days earlier, 29-year-old Ryan Kathman, a University of Nebraska-Lincoln graduate theater student, had discovered that Omaha actress Moira Mangiameli, 50, is his birth mother.

And here they were, rehearsing for the first time a scene from Shepard's drama "True West," with Mangiameli playing Kathman's mother, the role Hart intended to play. The director changed the play's casting in the wake of the revelation.

"I think Sam Shepard would get a kick out of this," Mangiameli would say later.

Yes, he probably would.

* * *

The Angels Theatre Company opens "True West" Wednesday night at Barry's Bar & Grill.

For Kathman and Mangiameli, the play has become the end of one story and the start, they hope, to many more.

The initial story began on July 16, 1980, when Mangiameli, then 22, gave birth to a baby boy. She gave him up for adoption 11 days later.


Her engagement to the boy's father had fallen apart, and she was not in a good place emotionally or financially.

"I fell in love with (the baby), and I couldn't imagine not having him in my life, but when I thought about what he could have ...," she said, her voice shaking.

"I could do it, but it would have been a struggle. It wouldn't be fair to him to start (his life) like that."

Mangiameli eventually pulled her life together. She married in 1985 and had two sons. She became a successful teacher and actor.

But she never forgot Brendan Patrick, the baby boy she gave away.

About eight years ago, Mangiameli's family urged her to go back to Catholic Charities, the organization that handled the adoption, to fill out a release form allowing the son she gave up to find her if he ever came looking.

"I always hoped he would," Mangiameli said.

* * *

Kathman has known he was adopted since he was 2, he said. His parents, Dennis and Norma, were open about it. His younger brother, Jason, is adopted, too. He also has two nonadopted sisters.

"I wasn't lacking for anything," he said. "I had a great life."

Still, not knowing his birth parents gnawed at him.

"It was always in the back of my mind," he said. "There are two people out there who are my birth parents that I don't know."

He began thinking more about it after his brother connected with his birth mother in 2000 and developed a relationship with her.

In 2007, with the blessing of his adopted parents, he began his search.

"(Uncomfortable) feelings naturally are there when someone else may pop up in his life," Kathman's adoptive mother, Norma, said. "Then logic takes over. It would not be fair to him (to disapprove)."

Kathman's search, however, didn't take off. Life intervened. He was in the midst of applying to graduate schools and planning a wedding.

He put the search on the back burner, but before he did, he learned a few things from Catholic Charities.

He knew how old his mother was. He knew she was of Irish heritage and was one of 10 children. And - here's the kicker - knew she was active in theater, music and writing.

"For me to find my way to (the arts), too, is the really crazy thing," he said.

He is the only member of his family to pursue an arts-oriented career.

"I was a little different (from everybody else) because of that," he said.

This spring, he stepped up his search after two life-changing events: His brother's birth mother died suddenly at age 45, and his wife, Jenny, was expecting.

Life, he realized, was short. He didn't want to waste any more time. He went to the state, obtained his birth certificate and learned his mother's name was Moira Reilly.

He Googled it and found an old Nebraska Shakespeare Festival program with her name on it. He also found a Moira Reilly Mangiameli quoted about teaching Shakespeare, so he Googled that name.

"And the whole world opened up," he said. "There were reviews, stories and programs."

He contacted Catholic Charities again.

* * *

Mangiameli's phone rang on July 10. When she answered it, she thought it was a telemarketer.

The woman said something about a release form Mangiameli had filled out years earlier.

"Who is this?" Mangiameli said.

"Catholic Charities," the woman replied.

"My heart jumped into my throat," she said. "This was a dream come true. This was something I had been wanting for 30 years."

The woman told her that her son would like to meet her. Told Mangiameli his name was Ryan (no last name), and that he was an actor currently on stage in Lincoln.

This time Google became Mangiameli's friend. She found a Ryan Kathman performing with the Nebraska Repertory Theatre in Lincoln, and gave Rep executive director Paul Steger a call.

"She was just beside herself with excitement," Steger said. "I, of course, was ecstatic about the possibility, but I had to remain as calm as I possibly could because it might not be him."

Kathman, meanwhile, began telling people that the Omaha actress may be his mother. He even told "True West" director Hart because he knew she knew her well. It wasn't long before Mangiameli called her, too.

"They were both calling me to ask about the other person they hadn't met yet," Hart said.

They met at Catholic Charities in Omaha. Kathman brought his wife. They talked for an hour and then headed to a restaurant in the Dundee neighborhood and closed it down.

They found they had many things in common.

Mangiameli also earned a graduate degree in acting from UNL, nine years earlier. She was there while Kathman was an undergraduate at Nebraska Wesleyan University. They competed against each other for an acting scholarship at a national festival.

Mangiameli's father, the late Bob Reilly, taught newswriting at the University of Nebraska at Omaha. Before focusing on theater, Kathman wrote for a suburban Minnesota newspaper.

Kathman's adoptive father teaches at Mangiameli's alma mater, Omaha Marian High School. They knew many of the same people, including Hart and Steger.

They also realized they had met before, just two months earlier, during a reading at the Great Plains Theatre Conference. They believe they even sat next to each other.

"We didn't rehearse," Kathman said. "We were handed the scripts 30 minutes beforehand. We just went around the room and introduced ourselves. That was it."

Mangiameli has since put Kathman in touch with his birth father, who also lives in Omaha. They haven't met yet but have e-mailed often and expect to come together soon.

"I know it doesn't always turn out this well," Kathman said. "I'm lucky it has. We've hit it off. We now have a basis for a relationship in the future."

They also have fodder for a play, for a story about a son reuniting with his birth mother.

It could begin with ... "Mom."

Reach Jeff Korbelik at 473-7213 or

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