As a gay man raised as a member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, playwright Matthew Greene thought coming out would resolve some of his internal struggles.
“That ended up not being the case,” Greene said. "A lot of things got much, much better, but life got a lot more complicated.”
Those complications — of reconciling a gay identity with an upbringing as a Latter-day Saint, of finding love in a way a church says is wrong — are the basis of Greene’s new one-man play, “Good Standing,” which will have its world premiere Thursday, Oct. 18, with Salt Lake City’s Plan-B Theatre Company.
Greene describes the play as “the most autobiographical thing I’ve ever written; it’s very much based in my experiences being a gay Mormon,” though the event it depicts is fictional.
The play follows a man named Curtis as he is called before a “court of love” with local church leaders, where he faces excommunication for the sin of marrying the man he loves.
“Usually I write about things that trouble me, or piss me off, or confuse me, as a way of working through all of that,” Greene said.
In this case, the impetus was the church’s policy statement in November 2015 that declared same-sex marriage an offense worthy of possible excommunication and that children of gay couples could not be baptized until they turn 18.
In the play, one actor — in this production, Austin Archer — portrays not only Curtis but also 15 other characters: the three members of the presidency of his stake (lay Latter-day Saint leaders who supervise several congregations) and the 12 members of a high council who will decide his fate.
“It was an effort to understand and get in the heads of church leaders, these mysterious men in suits who are making these decisions that I find really abhorrent and immoral, to foster some kind of empathy and understanding in myself,” Greene said.
In rehearsal recently, Archer worked with Greene to differentiate the voices of the many characters. In production, Archer plays Curtis for the most part standing and talking to the audience. When he grabs one of the several chairs and sits down, he assumes the persona of one of the other characters.
In the play’s first few minutes, Archer shifts into several characters in rapid succession: Brother Stone, Curtis’ Sunday school teacher, who kindly describes his former student’s inquisitiveness; Stake President Skillman, an older man harrumphing about “sins against nature”; Brother Perez, a thoughtful man recounting his own history of getting his girlfriend pregnant as a teen; and so on.
“I’m still in the process of getting specific on who’s who,” Archer said early in rehearsals. Sometimes, when he’s working on one character’s voice, he said, “Matt’s had to catch me on a few people, and go, ‘That guy’s meaner than that.’”
All the characters, Curtis and those judging him, are drawn from people in Greene’s life, he said. It’s something they have in common with the characters in Greene’s last play at Plan-B, the 2013 drama “Adam and Steve and the Empty Sea.”
That play told of two longtime friends who grow apart when one acknowledges he’s gay, which goes against the other’s strong faith as a Latter-day Saint. The story played out against the backdrop of the 2008 political battle over California’s Proposition 8, a ballot measure against same-sex marriage that was supported heavily by the church.
“It really was sort of an outward manifestation of the inner turmoil I was having,” Greene said. “Both of those characters were based on me and the internal debate that was happening in my head. I got it out of my head and onto the page.”
Greene wrote “Adam and Steve” while he was still in the closet. “People sort of made this assumption that the Mormon character was based on me and the gay character was based on some friend of mine,” he said. “Really, they were both me. That was the thing I wouldn’t even really admit to myself at the time, and certainly not to anybody else.”
“Good Standing” reflects an evolution for Greene, and the fact that he came out three years ago. “I really couldn’t have written this play if I was a closeted, card-carrying church member,” Greene said.
Growing up in Northern California, Greene was raised in the church, and his family is still active. “I always call myself a former Mormon,” Greene said, though he’s never taken his name off church membership rolls or been taken off involuntarily. “You’re never completely out of the church. It’s so baked into my DNA. It’s so much a part of who I am.”
Being a church member has had its good effects, Greene said. “I’m grateful that I am a believer; I am a person who wants to believe in things,” he said, adding that the church also provided “my commitment to the idea of family, even though my conception of what a family is has evolved.” (Greene, 32, lives in New York with a 21-year-old foster son, Mohammed.)
Archer, 30, grew up in the church in Salt Lake City but said he has been inactive for a dozen years. He is straight.
“I recognized a lot of the characters,” Archer said. “It was bringing up all this stuff I hadn’t thought about in years.”
Archer was one of two actors who looked at the script as Greene was developing it with Plan-B artistic director Jerry Rapier, who’s directing the production. “It sort of needs a person from this community to understand it,” Archer said.
Greene hopes the community, whether members of the church or not, will see the play as an attempt to work through divisions.
“This play was a way for me to move through a lot of negativity. This play was a way to work through a lot of anger, a lot of hostility, a lot of resentment,” he said. “I would just be so happy if this play helped anyone on their path toward healing.”
Plan-B Theatre’s production of the one-man play “Good Standing,” written by Matthew Greene and performed by Austin Archer.
Where • Studio Theatre, Rose Wagner Performing Arts Center, 138 W. 300 South, Salt Lake City
When • Oct. 18-28
Performance schedule • Thursdays and Fridays at 8 p.m.; Saturdays at 4 and 8 p.m.; Sundays at 2 p.m.
Tickets • $22, planbtheatre.org/goodstanding