Audiences for playwright Larry Kramer’s landmark 1985 agitprop drama The Normal Heart, will undoubtedly include those old enough to have been aware of and remember the baffling and fearful years when a strange new disease that would become known as AIDS first cropped up in gay communities. They recall the excruciatingly slow movement to address the epidemic that was grievously afflicting those communities and the bewildering hurt and powerlessness of losing family, friends and lovers to such a devastating and mysterious scourge. When The Normal Heart premiered in the midst of the realization of what AIDS was capable of, the play was a searing accusation and wrenching cry from the heart, literally indicting the audience for their complacency.
For those too young to remember the early 1980s, for which The Normal Heart serves as a docu-drama, a history play, a reminder that AIDS is still taking millions of lives each year and a cautionary tale for how we as a society deal with any inchoate horrible thing terrorizing us.
I am excited to announce that the play’s message has lost none of its directness, passion and urgency. Arena Stage’s first-rate production of Kramer’s furious, relentless howl still delivers a stinging emotional wallop, just the way it was meant to when it was a burning transmission from the breastworks of battle thirty years ago.
But now, there’s something else too as we look back on those tragic early days of crisis; The Normal Heart is more than the Jobian memoir of an angry man railing at the world. There’s a vividly drawn, if rough-hewn, beauty in this poignant time-capsule that compels you to think “what if?”
And in showing just how far it’s come from those first angry performances at New York’s Public Theater in 1985, The Normal Heart now is a pedigreed 2011 Tony Award-winner and Broadway smash.
Arena Stage’s presentation of Kramer’s vital polemic, directed by George C. Wolfe, is provocative, unwieldy, didactic, terrifying, beautiful, and, in the end, deeply moving and fully deserving of the standing ovation it earned on press night.
The nation’s capital is getting its first look at The Normal Heart, and its story of the early days of the AIDS crisis and the affront felt by a group of gay men turned activists pressing for acknowledgement of the disease. It is being staged in Washington D.C., to coincide with AIDS 2012, the biennial international AIDS conference being held July 22-27.
The play is rapidly paced; while quick scenes fall on top of each other and propel us through the nightmare of the mushrooming AIDS crisis, the animus of the production is a superb agitato performance by Patrick Breen as Ned Weeks, a journalist and Kramer’s alter ego. Political outrage shapes Ned’s arc, inspired directly by Kramer’s early days as an AIDS activist.
Ned saves his opprobrium for no one, equally ladling it on the city government and New York City Mayor Ed Koch, President Ronald Reagan, the medical establishment, the media—specifically The New York Times – the indifferent straight community, and the divided gay community: for intra-fighting, for remaining closeted in an existential crisis and for refusing to curb sexual promiscuity when it began to prove deadly.
The script is comprehensive and resounding with truth from someone who’s lived it, making up for the stilted structure of the scenes, the didactic speechifying and less than fully fleshed out characters in confrontation with Ned.
As the piece begins, Breen’s Ned is a sharp-tongued, spoilsport nebbish, but as the character begins to recognize that the not-yet-understood illness among his gay friends is a mortal threat, he becomes a torrent of incredulity and righteous rage. All nerves, Breen’s performance actually gets better as the pace quickens and the stakes get higher. He’s a mouthpiece for Kramer, yes, but what he has to say is so true and achingly elegant in its raw beauty that the characterization works.
Breen plays Ned unapologetically, strident and abrasive, but not unlikeable, and when his tenderness is exposed—when desperately seeking acceptance from his brother Ben, or as he shepherds his dying lover Felix in his last days—it’s these arcs that make up the emotional pull of the play.
Luke MacFarlane’s revelatory turn as Felix, a closeted New York Times style reporter who becomes Ned’s lover, gracefully carries The Normal Heart from diatribe into drama: From the early sweet scene of an awkward first date with Ned, through his discovery of the portentous purple spot on his foot, to his heartbreaking deterioration, MacFarlane is sublime.
The ensemble cast is also terrific, representing the differing strategies in the gay community in dealing with the crisis, as they band together and scuffle and wear each other down. More praise is due Kramer for not painting anyone in the script with too large or vulgar a brush (Mayor Koch excepted of course) and while the supporting characters are meant to be a sounding board for Ned, they’re all drawn with enough clarity to be knowable and understandable.
Michael Berresse is a standout as Mickey, a city employee and veteran of the gay rights struggles of the 1960s-70s loath to give up sexual freedoms. His breakdown scene is a volcanic, powerhouse performance that should leave audiences shaken.
Ned’s barn burning fervor is played up superbly against Nick Mennell as Bruce, a cautious banker and former Green Beret hesitant to be identified with anything gay and lose his job; Christopher J. Hanke as the finger-snapping comic relief Tommy acting as peacekeeper; and John Procaccino as Ben, Ned’s brother and the straight proxy in the play who loves and supports his brother who he can’t quite understand.
The only false note in the play is the character of Emma, played by Patricia Wettig of “Thirtysomething” fame. Wettig’s crusading, wheelchair-bound doctor who finds her patient list of fatally ill gay men growing by the day seems to have been written as a co-protagonist to Ned, which ends up confusing, as her few appearances are misfit with what is essentially Ned’s story. In the scenes they share together, Ned is even uncharacteristically passive, listening to her as she intones lists of facts and figures or makes bizarre statements. I suppose the purpose of her character is to imbue more authority in the castigating of the medical establishment than what we’d get from Ned saying her lines, but his character is already the central flamethrower and he does it so much better.
That’s the other problem with this Emma; Wettig’s performance veers from noticeably thin relative to the material to unconvincingly shrill in her set-piece scene. Most disappointing is that she recites lines instead of delivering dialogue.
David Rockwell’s white-box set is minimalist and stark, reflecting projections of the growing number of names of people who have died of AIDS. As the play progresses, the lists get longer, eventually falling off the available space and spilling out past the Fourth Wall. There’s an urgent, newsy feel to the set and lighting design, with helpful scene identifiers for time and place and fast, aggressive transitions communicating a race toward calamity.
What shouldn’t work as a satisfying drama—one man’s screed expressed through a series of hectoring diatribes—does, due to the truth in the telling, the honesty of the performances and the weight of the substance.
A lot of the theater we choose to see entertains us, or moves us or makes us think.
The Normal Heart is more than that. In its messy way, it’s a towering achievement, as essential as any of the masterworks in American theater. Even more so in a way, as the story is extant and the fight continues, in finding an abatement of this terrible disease and in allowing gay men and women to live in dignity with all the civil rights afforded to any American.
The Normal Heart’s impassioned roar will demand your engagement. It could be the most important play you see all year.
The Normal Heart
Written by Larry Kramer
Directed by George C. Wolfe
Produced by Arena Stage, with special arrangement by Daryl Roth
Reviewed by Roy Maurer
Running time: 2 hours and 30 minutes, including one intermission
- Gary Tischler . Georgetowner
- Charles Shubow . BroadwayWorld
- Chris Klimek . City Paper
Lisa Traiger . Washington Jewish Week
Kate Wingfield . MetroWeekly
- Sophie Gilbert . Washingtonian
- Peter Marks . Washington Post
Susan Berlin . Talkin’Broadway
Jennifer Perry . MDTheatreGuide
- Tim Smith . Baltimore Sun
Sophie Gilbert . Washingtonian
Alex Murphy . DCMetroTheaterArtsnot here