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    Matthew Huffman and Bill Fairbairn in Missa Solemnis, or The Play About Henry
    Photo by Roman Feeser
    Matthew Huffman and Bill Fairbairn

    Shades of Gay

    In "Missa Solemnis," a poignant exploration of a gay, Mormon suicide, playwright Roman Feeser opts for easy tears over difficult questions.


    When a play takes on a major theme — an important story, a crucial political platform, or both — it often becomes an educational tool more than an artistic work. "Missa Solemnis, or The Play About Henry," has a major theme: gay Mormons. Why do so many of them commit suicide? How do Morman families, educators and leaders handle what is known in the Church of Latter Day Saints as "same-gender attraction?" When playwright Roman Feeser, who is not a Mormon, read about a young gay man named Henry Stuart Matis, who shot himself on the steps of the Mormon Ward House in Los Altos, California in February 2000, he became deeply interested in the suicide epidemic amongst young gay and lesbian Mormons. He moved to Salt Lake City for a year, interviewed Mathis's bishop, and did intensive research on the treatment of homosexuality within contemporary Mormonism. He's now working on a book called "Latter Gay Saints: The Mormon Church and God's Second Class Saints."

    Written by: Roman Feeser.
    Directed by: Linda S. Nelson.
    Cast: Jai Catalano, Bill Fairbairn, Matt Huffman, Warren Katz ,and Gail Winar.
    Sound design by: Justin Utley.
    Set design by: Marisa Marrigan.
    Costumes by: David B. Thomson.
    Lighting design by: Graham T. Posner.
    Production stage manager: Melissa Carrol.

    Related links: Official site
    TBG Theater
    312 West 36th Street
    Previews start: Oct. 30, 2008
    Nov. 1-22, 2008

    "Missa Solemnis" is a tearjerker. Beginning with a stark tableau of Henry Matis's suicide, it chronicles the grief of his family, and his own despair from being caught in an impossible and false dilemma. It's tough for an outsider to organized religion to understand why anyone, gay or straight, would go through centuries-old paces to curtail his or her sexuality, lifestyle, or sense of fun and adventure, or twist his or her natural intelligence to believe things that defy logic and are inescapably bizarre. That's where the educational dimension of the play comes in. We see that Henry is a deeply devout Mormon and a strong believer in the tenets of his religion. His knees were heavily calloused from years of praying. He begged his God to help him, but help didn't come. He struggled with his parents over how to reconcile his identity with church teachings, which deem homosexuality an abomination and demand that gay Saints spend a life of celibacy, or undergo "reparative therapy" to become heterosexual. Henry had impassioned conversations with his bishop and his parents, and paced and prayed through countless sleepless nights, before deciding to take his life. Henry's story is unfortunately not unique. The highest percentage of gay suicides in the United States is among Mormons.

    [Feeser] gets his message across, but at the expense of some gritty moral complexity.  

    In taking on this theme, and putting this sad story on a stage, Feeser adopts a certain amount of political responsibility, like the makers of the Tom Hanks "AIDS movie," "Philadelphia." He gets his message across, but at the expense of some gritty moral complexity. The play is enormously sympathetic to Matis's parents, his bishop, his ongoing devotion to a religion that might seem outdated to some and downright sinister to others, and to the idea that anti-gay religious traditions can be changed and the church can embrace happy, monogamous same-sex love. It relies heavily on the idea that homosexuality is not a choice, and therefore the church should accept it. But certain things that are a choice — women wearing pants, for example, or masturbation — are prohibited by the church too. Feeser's script treads gently, leaving out the secret ceremonies and other details of Mormon life that are exposed in books like Martha Beck's memoir, "Leaving the Saints."

      [The play] relies heavily on the idea that homosexuality is not a choice, and therefore the church should accept it. But certain things that are a choice — women wearing pants, for example, or masturbation — are prohibited by the church too.
    This small production has a simple set — the Matis family home to one side of the stage and Henry's boyfriend's Village apartment to the other, with a large bedroom in the center that serves as part of both residences. The set shows the two irreconcilable parts of Henry's life, and how he inhabits both at once. As Henry, Matt Huffman gives an earnest performance: he's a straight-laced young man, for whom being good and doing the right thing is everything. His parents, as played by Warren Katz and Gail Winar, are also good, earnest people. The scene when the uptight, repressed, stoic Marilyn Matis loses it and weeps over her son's grave is so poignant it's hard to watch in such a small space, but it is Fred Matis's subtle corrosion through grief that"'s most heartbreaking.

    The people who love Henry feel his loss profoundly, but — in the case of his parents — they do not turn away from the prohibitive LDS doctrines that contributed to his sense that he had to die. This production could stand some editing — a scene where Henry teaches his lover about Mormon prayer is so chaotic that it feels ad libbed — and it opts for sentiment over moral complexity. In a world where thousands, if not millions, of intelligent, educated people, not just Mormons but people from many religious traditions, hold bigoted, antiquated and untenable views on human sexuality, perhaps this is the right political choice for the moment. Whether it's the right choice artistically is a different question.

    NOVEMBER 8, 2008

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