“The Tempermentals” presented by Arouet and Alfred Zem Hill

In the 1950s just about everyone was straight, or, if they weren’t, they tried to pass. They had no choice. American society had no use for those whose sexual preferences weren’t absolutely 100% heterosexual. Of course many movie stars, politicians, doctors, shoe salesmen, bricklayers, and next-door neighbors were gay, but that was their dirty little secret.

“The Tempermentals” by Jon Marans and directed here by Roy Arauz is both a history lesson and a moving account of the effort by some brave gay men to move honestly into the world rather than having to hide behind the lies, false identities, and unhappy marriages that existing society demanded. It’s the tale of Hollywood fashion designer Rudi Gernreich and political activist Harry Hay, two “tempermentals” (as gay men were then called) who with a few others initiated the Mattachine Society, a gay rights organization that preceded the famous incident at Stonewall, the encounter between gay men and the police that led up to Act Up and the modern equal rights movement.

Marans’ play is cleverly constructed. By gradually revealing the extent of the indignities these men were subjected to and the emotional costs of leading their secret lives, he moves his audience from dismay to outrage.

Sadly, the production isn’t as powerful as the play. Jaryl Allen Draper as Rudi Gernreich is lacking in passion. His laconic performance seems at odds with the force of the play. Daniel Wood as Harry Hay, too, seemed just a bit too subdued for a political firebrand. What they were doing was dangerous and frightening. There’s not enough of an emotional roller coaster here.

We, as a society, have come a long way since then, though clearly not far enough. Marriage is possible in only 12 states. Various religions still try to “reprogram” what they define as misfits. And just last weekend, a young man was shot and killed in Greenwich Village for no other reason than he was gay. There’s reason to go see this play.

Through May 25, The Ballard Underground, 2220 Market St. NW, Seattle, 425 298-3852.

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