August 23, 2012 at 11:17 am EDT | by Patrick Folliard
Hay days

‘The Temperamentals’
Through Sept. 16
Rep Stage
Howard Community College
10901 Little Patuxent Parkway
Columbia, Md.

‘Harry believed that not only should [gay people] have rights but we also should also have the right to act the way our culture is, to be ourselves even if that’s not pleasing to mainstream society,’ says gay actor RICK HAMMERLY. ‘This was very progressive thinking for the conformist 1950s. Harry had radical ideas and wasn’t always very diplomatic, but he contributed immeasurably to the gay movement before it even had a name.’ (Blade photo by Michael Key)

Almost 20 years before the pivotal Stone Wall riots of 1969 in New York City, the gay rights movement was already taking shape on the West Coast.

In “The Temperamentals,” gay playwright Jon Marans follows real life lovers Harry Hay and Rudi Gernreich in 1950s Los Angeles as they boldly build the Mattachine Society, the first gay rights organization in the United States.

Marans’ compelling 2009 comedy/drama is currently in production at the award-winning Rep Stage in Columbia, Md.

According to the amiable playwright, speaking via telephone from his apartment in New York City’s Hell’s Kitchen, “Typically we don’t think of Los Angeles as the hub of political activity, but what Harry Hay was doing there at the time was revolutionary. He was a visionary who saw the world differently than anyone in the U.S. back then. Hay [who died in 2002] was joyfully unapologetic about who he was. His attitude was, ‘It’s not my problem. It’s yours.’”

Marans first learned of Hay when he wrote the book to a musical based on Studs Terkel’s “Coming of Age,” a collection of interviews with activists all over 70, one of whom was Hay. The show, Marans says, “is political and very funny, particularly the part of Harry.”

The experience left Marans inspired to write more about Hay. He zeroed in on an earlier, sexier time in Hay’s life when he was ending his marriage to a woman and having a red hot affair with clothing designer Rudi Gernreich (noted for the first women’s topless bathing suit).

“Harry wasn’t an easy man. He was sort of the Larry Kramer of his day,” Marans says. “People didn’t want to work with Harry. If it weren’t for Rudi, with his abundant Viennese charm, and the several other founders, the Mattachine might never have happened.”

In forming the initially very small and secret society, Hay and fellow members came together and formally wrote down what it meant to be gay men and what was important to them. It was a journey of self discovery. Some reviews describe “The Tempermentals” as a kind of gay docudrama, but, Marans says, the play is also an exploration of our core selves and what it means to be gay and part of gay culture.

During the Eisenhower era, “temperamental” was one of various code word used by gays for gays. It was wise to stay away from calling anyone homosexual — an accusation at the root of witch hunts, police entrapments, undeserved pink slips and sometimes jail time. In his play, threats and fears are addressed and the productions are always better, Marans says, when that fear is made palpable.

Rep Stage’s artistic director Michael Stebbins, who’s gay, first saw “The Temperamentals” in New York with a much older gay friend. “After we left the theater, he said the play rang entirely true. It accurately reflects those scary but exciting times.”

As Rep Stage’s season opener, Stebbins says it fits with Rep’s mission to include a contemporary work that is both is entertaining and informative, and speaks to the American experience of cultural minority. For LGBT audiences, he says, it will inform and strengthen self-awareness.

Directed by Kasi Campbell, the production features Nigel Reed as Harry along with Vaughn Irving, Brandon McCoy and Rick Hammerly. Alexander Strain plays Rudi. Hammerly is the lone gay actor in the production’s five-man cast. Throughout rehearsals, he was called on to act as a sort of gay translator, explaining lingo and cultural cues.

“You assume actors would know better, but these straight guys were clueless about a lot of things,” he says. “It’s been interesting and a responsibility. I want this to feel as authentic as possible.”

Busy with his theater company (Factory 449) and grad school, Hammerly has to be selective about what projects he takes on. With “The Temperamentals,” he found the history and playing Bob Hull, a Mattachine founding member whom Marans writes with humor, too tempting to pass up.

“As a gay man,” says the Helen Hayes Award-winning local actor, “it’s important for me to pass this history on, especially to younger gay people who aren’t aware that it’s a big deal to be able to marry your partner or hold his hand in public. They need to know and understand the enormous strides made by people like Harry Hay.”

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