Henry Stuart Matis was a 32-year-old Mormon who committed suicide in February 2000 after years of trying to reconcile his homosexuality with the teachings of his church. As gay icons go, Matis is far less known than Matthew Shepard, but Roman Feeser nevertheless has written a play that seeks to elevate Matis to a martyrlike status. Feeser, who is not a Mormon, has done a laudable job of absorbing the language of Mormonism as well as its teachings and some of its more obscure history. The unfamiliar, often startling terms in Missa Solemnis bring one vividly into the insular world of Latter-Day Saints—indeed, members refer to one another as “saints.” Watching over every Mormon is “Heavenly Father,” and daily Scripture reading is common practice.
But in spite of the trappings, there are dramatic obstacles. “The catalyst [for his suicide] has never revealed itself,” Feeser has said. “The reasons why are one of the biggest pieces missing from this puzzle.” One is left to infer that Matis wanted his death to spur changes to the Mormon church's view of homosexuality. But with such an emotional cornerstone absent, Missa Solemnis becomes a plodding case study with few dramatic surprises as it follows Henry’s coming out to his family and his declining struggle to reconcile his feelings and his faith.
The first moments of Linda S. Nelson’s production hold promise of dramatic excitement. Henry stands, gun to head, under flashy lightning effects by Graham T. Posner. Then, we hear roughly 10 minutes of speechifying from Henry’s mother, father, bishop (the term in Mormonism does not connote ordination), and Henry’s boyfriend Todd (Jai Catalano). In spite of some cinematic cutting among them, the monologues are talky and often sound like résumés: “When I became a mother,” says Marilyn Matis (Gail Winar), “I read The Book of Mormon and the Bible to my children and have continued to do so ever since. My husband, Fred, and I religiously attend the Temple, hold family prayer twice a day and have believed in Monday family home evening since the birth of our first child.”
Henry’s father claims to know that his son had engaged in a sexual relationship; Marilyn denies he ever did. “Henry had been struggling with his same gender attraction for quite some time,” says Marilyn, a dry and subtly destructive figure who, even when trying to help her son, makes him feel he hasn’t done enough. “I use the term ‘same gender attraction’ because Henry did not take to the terms ‘homosexual’ or ‘same sex attraction.’ … He preferred the term ‘gay,’ but I feel the term ‘gay’ connotes sexual activity, so I will use the term the Church prefers ... same gender attraction.” Prayer and Scriptures are her, and the LDS's, solution for Henry.
Todd describes his first encounter with Henry. (They “meet cute” and unconvincingly: Henry orders milk in a gay bar, and Todd, in a milieu that places a premium on good looks, is attracted to his milk "mustache." Would a man of 32 really not be able to drink milk without getting it above his upper lip? Do adults of any sexual orientation find that attractive?)
To be sure, Henry’s plight echoes that of another debatably tragic figure, Georg Buchner’s Woyzeck, who is victimized by others, and Henry certainly has more sensibility about what is happening to him. Matt Huffman lends Henry a striking man-boy quality. He giggles affectionately when talking with his parents, suggesting that his emotional growth has been stunted. (At 32, he still lives with them.) And he agonizes deeply about his sexuality.
One of the most effective scenes is between Henry and Bishop Bob Rhodes, played by Warren Katz with gruff sympathy and open-mindedness. Katz juices up the discussions of politics, religion and LDS policy with his nuanced portrayal. One learns that LDS founder Joseph Smith once delivered a warm eulogy in London for a man, Lorenzo Barnes, who slept with another man. Though Rhodes met Henry only once, he extracted a promise that Henry would contact him if he ever felt urged to end his life—but Henry didn’t.
Yet, although Feeser has marshaled a good deal of information, there’s much more of Henry’s story that one wants. What were his relations with his brother and three sisters like? Henry also apparently attended a party with 15 gay men, but was so assailed for his Mormonism that he never went back. Still, if he found 15 men at a party, how is it that he couldn’t find a confidant somewhere, given that he is handsome, easygoing, and loving, albeit a bit quirky? After all, Matis lived in California, not Utah, where such isolation might be insurmountable. Missa Solemnis, for all its good intentions, is more a solemn miss than a tragic hit.