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“The Temperamentals” delivers a clear message: Gay-rights activism didn’t begin with the 1969 protests at Greenwich Village’s Stonewall Inn.

This enlightening, award-winning play by Jon Marans explores the formation in the early 1950s of the first homosexual-rights organization in the U.S., The Mattachine Society.

Now in Seattle in a sturdy, engaging staging by Arouet Productions, under Roy Arauz’s direction, the briskly paced docudrama clicks because it is a character-driven love story — as well as an insightful tracking of how political movements are built from the ground up, with victories and setbacks, loyalties and betrayals. And while the men it profiles are brave indeed, they are complex human beings.

The key figures are the politically radical Mattachine founder Harry Hay (Daniel Wood) and his lover at the time, fashion designer and Holocaust survivor Rudi Gernreich (Jaryl Allen Draper). With several other men, they dared pull back the curtain of shame and fear that hid the true identities of so many gay men and women — not just from their families, friends and the public, but to one another and even themselves.

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Hay’s gruff boldness and dedication to Marxist ideals is contrasted with the cooler sophistication and wariness of Gernreich. Yet in some ways, at first, Gernreich is more honest about who he is, while Hay clings to the respectability of a heterosexual marriage.

Their intense affair and roles in the cause inevitably change as they change. From Marans’ perspective, both men did all they could, each in his own way, to advance gay rights — which was plenty in a Cold War society avidly rooting out, and punishing, sexual and political “deviants.”

Short, crisp scenes give us the tenor of the times: the washroom arrest that sparked a landmark trial, the dreaded power of the House Un-American Activities Committee, and the schism between The Mattachine Society’s founders and its less-militant later members.

Arauz keeps the story in cogent, sensitive motion on the tiny Ballard Underground stage, and the cast is solid throughout, especially the well-matched Draper and Wood. (Though the latter could shout less.)

As for a glossary, The Mattachine Society was named after a French medieval masque and revels group made up of unmarried men. And “temperamentals” was Hay’s fond term for homosexuals.

Misha Berson:

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