The Normal Heart
"The Normal Heart" was first staged in 1985 at The Public Theater in New York, where it ran for a record-breaking 294 performances. This fiercely polemic play channeled AIDS activist and writer Larry Kramer's fury, frustration, and despair at the negligence and homophobia of our country's politicians and public health systems, and the reluctance of the gay community to ruffle authority's feathers or to challenge its own sexual norms in the face of a killer disease.
When it premiered, the play was hailed in the words of one critic as "a damning indictment of a nation in the middle of an epidemic with its head in the sand." Audiences left the theater outraged and sobbing. As Kramer had intended it to be, "The Normal Heart" was as effective a call to action as any ACT UP street demonstration or sit-in.
Now in revival three decades after the AIDS epidemic first emerged, "The Normal Heart" has lost none of its power. Indeed, ACT's production, which opened on September 19, provides a fast-paced and riveting performance that feels surprisingly fresh and, sadly, with more than 35 million people dead and many more millions infected across the globe, as relevant today as it ever was.
"The Normal Heart" is largely autobiographical. Ned Weeks, the play's main character, is a barely disguised stand-in for Kramer. The play opens in the early '80s, when formerly healthy gay men in New York start showing strange, unexplained symptoms and die within months. In response, Ned starts up an organization in his living room with a group of friends and associates.
While Ned might seem the new organization's natural leader, he lacks the charisma, good looks, and smooth-talking presence of Bruce Niles (in real life, Paul Popham, who became president of Gay Men's Health Crisis). Besides, Ned's style is confrontational and far too direct.
On one hand, Bruce and the organization's other leaders think Ned is whipping up fear and hysteria in the gay community while trying to put a lid on their sexual freedom. On the other, they don't like the way he refuses to kowtow to politicians or to take the crumbs they're offered to keep them quiet.
As the epidemic worsens, the death toll mounts, and New York and national politicians continue to pretend as if nothing is happening, the pressures become unbearable. Inevitably, Bruce's and Ned's conflicting styles lead to a showdown. Ned faces multiple losses, not in the least, alienation from his community and the organization he founded.
It was from these losses and the many thousands of obscene and dehumanizing acts suffered by gay men with AIDS that Kramer drew the outrage that pulses through "The Normal Heart."
In ACT's staging, deftly directed by George Wolfe, the sparse and starkly lit sets (created by David Rockwell) etched, like a grave or a tomb, amplify this outrage. Martin Pakledinaz's costumes echo the bleakness -- with the exception of a few small swatches of color, this is a world that's been turned to shades of gray.
This dreary and austere backdrop also magnifies the vibrant performances. Patrick Breen gives us a nuanced Ned whose self-consciousness and self-deprecating humor rescue him from shrillness. And Breen brings greater depth to Kramer's exceptionally didactic script by allowing the audience to fully experience Ned's yearning for his brother's (withheld) acceptance and his aching need for a life partner.
As that life partner, Felix, a self-confident but closeted writer at The New York Times, Matt McGrath delivers a bravely authentic performance that leaves us convinced of his and Ned's deep connection, despite their relationship being given relatively short shrift in the script.
Sean Duggan is delightful as the flirtatious Southerner, Tommy Boatwright, whose brave swish masks a deepening despair. Not quite so compelling, but certainly competent is Jordan Baker as Dr. Emma Brookner. Hers is a challenging role in that Dr. Brookner serves largely as the playwright's mouthpiece for information about AIDS, its mounting threat, and the government and medical community's neglect.
But Baker's consistently strident delivery fails to quite elevate her character above a didactic device. Similarly, while Ben Weeks has the looks and build for the handsome Bruce Altman, his restrained performance means we never see beneath that polished surface to gain full insight into the fear that keeps Bruce from stepping out of line.
Yet, what makes ACT's production exceptional is that it harnesses Kramer's original fury while also delivering an emotionally powerful but finely tuned work.
After a somewhat weak start, "The Normal Heart" grabs the audience's attention about halfway through the first act and doesn't let go until the play's last, heart-wrenching line.
This is a play that should be seen by everyone -- for the lessons it offers not only about the past, but also about the present. For, after all this time, Kramer's work speaks eloquently and with deep moral conviction about AIDS and what it means to be a despised minority. For all the changes we have seen in the last 30 years, "The Normal Heart" still contains so much we need to know.
"The Normal Heart" runs through October 7 at The American Conservatory Theater, 405 Geary Street in San Francisco. For info or tickets, visit the theater’s website