By Richard Ades
If you’re like most people, you think America’s gay rights movement began with New York’s 1969 Stonewall rebellion.
Well, it did and it didn’t. The uprising was a prime catalyst, but a few brave souls were already fighting anti-gay discrimination nearly two decades earlier. Their efforts are the subject of Jon Marans’s The Temperamentals.
The play is set in Los Angeles in the early 1950s, a red-baiting era when homosexuals are treated with as much suspicion as communists. And it so happens that the main protagonists, Harry Hay (Brent Alan Burington) and Rudi Gernreich (Adam Greenbaum Latek), are both.
Though outwardly more conservative than Rudi, Harry is the one who seems determined to challenge the status quo.
Taking advantage of costume designer Rudi’s connections, he approaches Hollywood bigwigs such as Vincente Minnelli (David Allen Vargo) and asks them to sign a manifesto he’s drawn up on the rights of “temperamentals” (the euphemistic 1950s term for homosexuals). Not surprisingly, Minnelli and others are afraid to have anything to do with the document.
Eventually, Harry and Rudi do gather a tiny group of like-minded men and found the Mattachine Society, an organization devoted to the cause of equality. However, they accomplish little until Dale (Donnie Lockwood) is arrested on the trumped-up charge of soliciting sex from an undercover cop.
Such ruses are common in these pre-enlightened times, as gay men are so desperate to keep their sexual identity a secret that they willingly pay a hefty fine to make the charge go away. But when Dale says he can’t afford to take that route, Harry suggests a bold alternative: Admit his homosexuality while declaring his innocence. Members of the jury will be so impressed by his brave honesty, Harry reasons, that they’ll have to believe him.
In a perfect world, such a courageous act would inspire more courageous acts, all of which would lead to the kind of acceptance the Mattachine Society was seeking. But our world isn’t perfect, and it was even less so in the 1950s. Thus, The Temperamentals is the story of a movement that proves to be ahead of its time.
Because it remains true to history, with its mix of triumphs and disappointments, the play lacks an overall dramatic arc. But it makes up for it by documenting the huge barriers early gay activists faced. And not all the barriers were external; a big first step was learning how to communicate with each other about their shared heartaches and frustrations.
Director Douglas Whaley helps us understand these struggles by drawing relatable performances out of his cast. Burington anchors the production as the abrasive, impatient Hay, while Latek offers contrast as the more diplomatic Rudi. Besides Lockwood’s Dale, other founding members of the Mattachine Society are Chuck (Vargo) and Bob (Mark Phillips Schwamberger).
In addition to their central roles, all of the actors except for Burington play multiple supporting roles, both men and women. For the most part, they rise to the multitasking occasion.
Like Evolution Theatre Company’s spring production of Yank! The Musical, The Temperamentals is an imperfect but engrossing work that offers insights into gay life in the mid-20th century. That makes it invaluable.
Evolution Theatre Company will present The Temperamentals through July 18 at the Columbus Performing Arts Center, 549 Franklin Ave., Columbus. Show times are 8 p.m. Thursday-Saturday. Running time: 2 hours, 30 minutes (including intermission). Tickets are $20, $15 students/seniors. 1-800-838-3006 or evolutiontheatre.org.