Missa Solemnis or The Play About Henry
nytheatre.com review by Martin Denton
November 2, 2008
Missa Solemnis or The Play About Henry, by Roman Feeser, tells the story of Henry Stuart Matis, who killed himself in 2000, when he was 32 years old, because he could not find a way to reconcile his Mormon faith with his homosexuality. It's a worthy effort, telling a story that people need to hear.
Missa Solemnis is actually the third play about a gay Mormon character that I've seen in the past couple of years. Andrew McCormick, the central figure in Carol Lynn Pearson's Facing East, also kills himself, while Steven Fales (Confessions of a Mormon Boy) left the Church and has used his theatre work to help him reconcile the beliefs he was taught with the signals his body and brain send him. I bring this up because the central dilemma for all three of these gay Morman men is why God would make them gay when His teachings—which they believe with a deeply-engrained faith—indicate that homosexuality is an abomination. Henry says to his bishop:
The Church places homosexuality second to murder, Bishop. To murder! I have been compared to Satanists, prostitutes, pedophiles and even those who take part in bestiality! I don’t think you know what it’s like to want to remain devoted to the one thing you’ve known your whole life is true while shoving down this urge of an anchor that wants so desperately to come up like vomit.
The question I find most interesting is why some men, like Steven Fales, can move away from the Mormon Church, while others, like Henry Matis, can only find peace by ending their lives. Missa Solemnis never really explains this, but its presentation of the severe disconnect that Henry's parents experience vis-a-vis his sexual identity goes a long well towards enhancing our understanding. Fred and Marilyn Matis are loving parents and intelligent people—yet the deeply taboo nature of homosexuality for them is evident: they seem entirely incapable of believing that being gay can actually be part of how a person defines themself (as opposed to a choice, or a phase). From such deep denial, tragedy can grow—and that's what happens here.
The other characters in Feeser's play are Bob Rhodes, a bishop in the Mormon Church from whom Henry seeks aid, and Todd Elliot, a young New Yorker who becomes Henry's only lover. The scene with Todd is the play's pivotal one, as Henry wrestles with Sin—something unfamiliar to him that may be real love or may only be desire.
Feeser and his director, Linda S. Nelson, move Henry's story rapidly from his initial meeting of Todd (at a Manhattan gay bar where Henry ordered milk) through the scary moment when he tells his parents he has bought a gun to his death and its aftermath.
Nelson's cast is a bit uneven: Gail Winar hasn't seemed to really get under the skin of Henry's mother at this point, and her portrayal feels superficial. Bill Fairbairn is more effective as Henry's dad, especially in scenes where the two men have heart-to-heart talks that really wound. Jai Catalano offers a lively and warm presence as Todd; Warren Katz is pretty much his opposite as Bishop Rhodes. Anchoring the play in a moving performance as Henry is Matt Huffman.
Feeser never judges any of his characters, which is commendable. I would have liked more back story about Henry: why does he still live at home at the age of 32, for example; and how did he find the nerve and courage to act on his impulse with Todd (Henry says "Do you know what it took for me to walk in that bar?"—and unfortunately, we don't quite know, and we should).
But the awareness that Missa Solemnis provokes in audiences—and let's hope it gets seen by many different people, especially in the Mormon community—is important and valuable.