In the end, the Defense of Marriage Act was always constitutionally suspect. Under DOMA, a state which did not recognize same-sex marriage was not obliged to respect such a marriage if it was performed in a state which did. Nor did the Federal government. This violated the full faith and credit clause of the Constitution, which says that a legal determination made in any state is binding on all of America.
When a legislature passes a law which on its face seems unconstitutional, it’s usually because large segments of the population are witnessing a change in society which is scaring them to death. Enactments against homosexuality, from statutes criminalizing homosexual acts all the way to DOMA, belong to that class of laws which exist only because they regulate activities that make some people uncomfortable. As social mores change, they seem stupid and bigoted, like the anti-miscegenation laws, but we barely think about the ones which remain today, like the limited prohibition against public nudity. Those changes in society terrify those who are left behind.
So, from the vantage point of 2016, it is difficult to set forth the 1990s battle over gay marriage in a context which makes sense. In The DOMA Diaries, playwright Kevin Michael West doesn’t make the attempt. His good guys are good guys, and his bad guys…well, they’re suppurating morons, and inarticulate to boot.
Instead, West concentrates on the lives and suffering of five human beings who were badly treated by America at that time. Audrey (Joy Gerst) served her country in the military for years, but cannot buy a burial plot in a military cemetery next to her spouse, Diane. Janice (Renae Erichsen-Teal) is suffering from cancer and wants to be sure that the family she shares with Sophie (Nell Quinn-Gibney) will remain intact if she dies. Red (Christian Rohde) desperately wants a Federally-recognized marriage not only because he loves Oliver (Garrett Matthews) but to prevent him from being deported back to Russia. (West says that he also faced a similar challenge involving his husband.)
The DOMA Diaries
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West tells his story in brief vignettes, occasionally linked through narratives provided by an actor who is otherwise not engaged in the scene. West is a screenwriter as well as a playwright, and this technique would work well on the screen, where the narrator would be invisible and the set would change like magic. Here, it’s a little clunky and distracting.
West earnestly attempts to cover the full range of attitudes about DOMA, and thus introduces a few undercooked scenes, such as one involving Red’s “moderate” friend Margaret (Gerst), who favors civil unions but not same-sex marriages. West occasionally gets pedantic, and weighs his human story down with argument. On some minor issues, he gets his facts wrong (a California notary notarizes a document before it is signed; Janice’s lawyer [Steven Wolf] tells her that she can’t will her house to Sophie without paying estate taxes, when he could have solved the problem easily by retitling the property in both their names.)
With these defects, why is The DOMA Diaries so effective? First, because West’s characters are beautifully drawn. They are fully human, with their own minor defects, and engaging. Their relationships — with their lovers, with their adversaries, and with themselves — are plausible and often compelling. These are people you know, or if you don’t, you’d like to know.
Secondly, his cast buys in completely. Although some of the actors occasionally fought their lines in the show I saw — a problem I expect will disappear in later productions — each one of them is fully himself every second of the production. Gerst and Matthews are notable in their ability to take on different characters, and, in Matthews’ case, different dialects.
Thirdly, the production is full of invention. Janice and Sophie’s two children are played by large Muppet-style hand puppets, voiced by Gerst and Rohde. West has an unerringly accurate sense of the emotional life of kids on the cusp of puberty, and that sense, coupled with good work by the actors, allows us to, improbably, transform these pieces of cloth into real kids.
Fourthly, West does an excellent job directing his own piece. Actors move on and off the stage quickly and gracefully, and the multiple shifts in story do not jar or upset.
Finally, this is the story of the triumph of love over fear, and thus, of life over death.
The Doma Diaries . Written and directed by Kevin Michael West . Featuring Renae Erichsen-Teal, Joy Gerst, Garrett Matthews, Nell Quinn-Gibney, Christian Rohde (who designed the set as well) and Steven Wolf. Lighting by Daniel Erichsen-Teal, Costumes by Greg Stevens. Produced by Dust Bunny Productions. Reviewed by Tim Treanor.