WASHINGTON, July 9, 2012 – Arena Stage’s current production of Larry Kramer’s controversial 1985 AIDS drama, entitled The Normal Heart, still packs a powerful punch. Simultaneously angry, desperate, hectoring, and crusading, the play was Kramer’s almost desperate attempt to wake up both the gay community and the medical community alike to the grim reality of an almost willfully misunderstood epidemic that threatened a catastrophe of potentially epic proportions.
Somewhat surprisingly, Arena’s production of Normal Heart is the first-ever appearance of this nearly 30 year-old play in Washington, DC despite this city’s substantial gay population. Kramer’s drama did get an impressive production across the river back in 1996 as the Washington Shakespeare Company (now WSC Avant Bard) but hasn’t appeared again in the metro area until now.
Chronicling the early days of the AIDS epidemic as it unfolded in New York city, this production of Normal Heart will revive deeply painful memories in those who remember the disease’s almost-surreal beginnings while proving a revelation to younger generations not familiar with how this medical tragedy actually unfolded.
Almost unnoticed in its early days, AIDS initially didn’t even have a name. Quietly and without warning, a few gay men in New York started becoming sick and dying of ailments ranging from pneumonia that couldn’t be cured to strange, exotic cancers so rare that they were scarcely footnotes in the medical literature. Although it may seem difficult to believe, it took some time early on to discover that the cause of these disparate ailments was a fatally-compromised immune system. It took even more time to discover that a mysterious, new virus with no known remedy was the actual cause of what was happening.
Normal Heart follows these early days, when the gay community began to notice that more and more of its members were succumbing to this ailment with no name and no cure, a disease that seemed to come out of nowhere to stalk an entire subculture, many of whose members had only recently decided to collectively come out of the closet and celebrate who they were.
Normal Heart captures, at times quite viscerally, the sense of fear bordering on panic in New York’s gay community as they confronted a grim reaper that seemed to be stalking only them. They faced as well the indifference of a medical and research community that seemed to have little interest in even exploring the problem before it was too late.
The play is essentially autobiographical, chronicling Kramer’s own early days as he spearheaded what eventually became known loosely as “AIDS activism,” an attempt by members of the gay community to focus the medical community on uncovering the origin and cause of the unknown ailment and then on finding a cure.
Directed by George C. Wolfe, Arena Stage’s production of The Normal Heart is the first stop in a gradual nationwide tour of the play that originated with a Tony-Award winning revival of the play in New York. Boasting a few of the stars of the original revival, albeit in different roles, this is a bristling, edgy production that’s likely to renew the AIDS discussions anew wherever it appears. It’s unfolding here at an uncannily auspicious time, dovetailing nicely with the AIDS 2012 conference that’s taking place in DC starting just over a week from today.
Normal Heart is the kind of play this reviewer generally dislikes intensely. It’s radical left propaganda, pure and simple, at its most basic level. And yet…and yet…
Playwright Kramer, not known for his temperate voice on any issue, somehow still manages, almost miraculously, to infuse this play with a heart and soul, with a deep, basic humanity and sensitivity that somehow liberates his drama from the strict party-line that gave it its original shape.
Based heavily on his own early personal involvement in the action, Kramer’s drama presents real people dealing desperately with a real-life medical emergency that unfolds almost like a police procedural on TV, uncovering evidence a little bit at a time.
By the time Kramer wrote the play, one thing had become fairly clear: promiscuous, unprotected sex in the gay community was almost certainly the way the mysterious way in which the AIDS plague was spreading. Although a radical, Kramer was also a realist, and, early on, began to beg, cajole, lecture, and preach either abstinence or monogamy as at least a temporary way of halting the disease’s spread until a vaccine or cure could be found.
This created an interesting paradox for both Kramer and his play, and is one of this drama’s perhaps unexpected central conflicts. During the 1970s, “being gay” was increasingly defined by radicals as wild, profligate sexual abandon involving many partners. Kramer was essentially demanding that this behavior be stopped, at least temporarily, which was anathema to those who refused to renounce the almost sacramental character of gay bath house sex.
Thus, Normal Heart revolves around two essential conflicts: first, the supreme difficulty of getting the scientific and medical communities to even notice what was going on let alone address it; and second, getting the gay community to at least suspend its mass-devotion to unprotected sex before they exterminated themselves.
In Normal Heart, Ned Weeks (Patrick Breen)—a loosely disguised Larry Kramer—is appalled to discover that close friends and associates are suddenly being felled by an unknown disease. Things become worse when his passionate relationship with news reporter Felix Turner takes a serious turn for the worse when his partner comes down with the disease. Weeks and his only ally in the medical community, Dr. Emma Brookner (Patricia Wettig), try to press the issue in the halls of scientific academia as well as the inbred grant community of NSF.
Meanwhile, on the populist front, Ned spearheads a new organization within the gay community to create a greater awareness of what’s going on and how to deal with it.
Frustration builds in the play as Weeks and Brookner fail to make much progress on the medical front. And things eventually sour on the PR front as well as Weeks’ fellow activists bristle against his radical approach to publicity as well as his heretical attempt to reign in unprotected sex within the gay community.
Normal Heart is a wrenching, emotional experience, and its entire cast performs brilliantly in the main. As Ned Weeks, Patrick Breen is a hyperkinetic yet (at times) a surprisingly reasonable advocate for direct action on all fronts. As his doomed lover, Felix Turner, Luke Macfarlane turns in an amazingly nuanced performance, deeply involving even those audience members not normally sympathetic toward the gay community with his tragic humanity.
Nick Mennell is highly effective as Bruce Niles who eventually, albeit reluctantly, is forced to ease Ned aside in his own movement, hopefully for the greater good. Chris Dinolfo is almost letter perfect as an idealistic younger acolyte of the movement who gradually shows greater sense and political acumen than many of its original leaders. And Michael Berresse’s initially cautious portrayal of in-the-closet political functionary Mickey Marcus is a case-study of how dangerous it is for a government bureaucrat to step out of the shadows.
This production of Normal Heart is a study in contrasts for those who, like this reviewer, may have seen the Washington Shakespeare Company’s deeply nuanced, incredibly moving 1995 production on the other side of the river. This production was notable for its relative modulation and deeply felt humanity.
Arena’s current production lacks some of this nuance. While still brilliantly effective, its ultra-high decibel level is sometimes off-putting in the way that WSC’s was not. The current production is clearly a direct child of the New York scene where everything, no matter what the subject matter, is screamed and hyped to a fare-thee-well. This is, it must be admitted, authentic New York. But it may not play too well in Peoria. The constant yelling and hollering eventually has the effect of drowning out some sympathy for the characters’ collective plight, and the director and cast might consider cranking the volume back, at least a bit, before proceeding to other cities.
Perhaps the worst offender here is Patricia Wettig. As Dr. Brookner, she gets to deliver one of the play’s key orations. But instead of a moving, passionate, anti-establishment summation speech, Wettig transforms this key moment into a shrill, high-volume tirade that, from beginning to end, competes with an old, unmodified Boeing 727 in its ear-splitting intensity. Her rant, admittedly, is probably authentic, old-style, New York radical. Yet some variation in tone here would make this speech far more effective. We’d suggest that Wettig, and/or the director, consider re-examining this way this key scene is presented.
Likewise, there’s a bit too much of this on the part of Patrick Breen’s Ned Weeks. But Breen seems to know when to stop or pull back, always going to the brink, but then retreating slightly before his character loses his believability and humanity.
On the whole, however, Arena’s Normal Heart is a sociologically, politically, and artistically timely revival of a problem play that still has an awful lot to say to a modern audience. Wisely, Kramer refused to update his play for its current run, leaving it not only as still-fine play, but also as a key historical document of a disease whose history and treatment course is still evolving.
Today, AIDS is capable of being held at bay but is still not regarded as curable. Intriguingly, USA Today noted some recent developments on this front:
“A trio of new studies highlights the promise and challenges of preventing the spread of HIV, the virus that causes AIDS: Giving anti-AIDS drugs to healthy but high-risk patients can dramatically reduce the risk of infection.
“Two studies from Africa in heterosexual patients found that the drugs reduced the rate of HIV infection by 62% to 75%, a success rate that’s comparable to results from studies of gay men, according to research in today’s New England Journal of Medicine.”
These are remarkable results that show the kind of progress that Kramer could never have imagined when he wrote his play in the 1980s, but they still demonstrate that the AIDS problem has still not been solved a good thirty years after this malady began to appear on the medical radar screen.
The Normal Heart charts, in a radical yet moving way, the beginning of a journey that still has no end. It’s a play that needs to be seen, and its revival could not possibly be more timely as we all move ahead in an amazingly uncertain environment where everyone is concerned about what kind of future tomorrow might hold in store.
Rating: ** ½ (Two and one-half stars.)
The Normal Heart runs through July 29 at Washington’s Arena Stage. For information, show times, and tickets, click here.
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