The Normal Heart

Alright. As previously stated, Hillary and I are hopelessly, hopelessly behind on everything related to Super Awesome Broadway Ninjas...except for seeing a large amount of shows. At several points over the past two months, it's occurred to both of us just how much quality theater we've been privileged to see as of late. And since our show-going has outpaced our blogging, we're planning on cranking out reviews for the following shows in the next week or so:

- Jerusalem
- The Book of Mormon
- The People in the Picture
- The national tour of Next to Normal
- How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying
- Now. Here. This.
- Spider-Man: Turn Off The Dark

In the meantime, we felt it was only appropriate to devote time first to a little production you may have heard mentioned a few times on the Tony Awards a few weeks back. It's called The Normal Heart. And it's absolutely, hands down, unarguably the most important piece of theater we've ever seen in our lives.

That statement may sound a little extreme if you haven't seen the production, playing at the Golden Theatre through July 10 only. If you have seen it...well, you know what we're talking about. You know what it feels like to sit in the midst of a mass of people sobbing collectively at the realities taking place on stage before them. Larry Kramer's play chronicles the beginning of the AIDS crisis in 1980s America, and the efforts of a group of men, based closely on the Gay Men's Health Crisis, to force knowledge of the epidemic into the public mind, at a time when the disease was labeled as "the gay plague," next to nothing was known about it, and those in positions of power chose to ignore it. Written in the midst of that crisis, this revival is strikingly and terrifyingly just as relevant as it must have been in 1985, because, largely, not much has changed about the stigma that still surrounds AIDS .

After seeing a few plays that took a more roundabout way of getting to the point they were trying to make, Hillary and I agreed that it was refreshing to see something on the other end of the spectrum. The Normal Heart is extremely direct and blunt in addressing the urgency of the situation. In the first scene, Dr. Emma Brookner (played by Tony Award winner Ellen Barkin) solemnly welcomes a steady stream of patients into her office; as she informs each of them of their probable AIDS diagnosis, the audience is privy to a list of facts and statistics about the earliest days of AIDS. At first the scene felt a little preachy to me, but in the end, introducing the world of the play to the audience in that way was necessary. It served to set the scene and the pace of both the epidemic itself and the urgency of organizations trying to overcome governmental and public ignorance. No dancing around the facts or softening the situation. The pulsing music between scenes also reinforced the fast-moving nature of the issues addressed in the play. The starkly designed set consisted of a black floor and three white walls covered with raised letters, outlining the entire history of the AIDS crisis (poignantly, we saw the show one day prior to the 30-year anniversary of the first diagnosed case of the disease in the United States).

The leader and founder of the very-much-autobiographical group, Ned Weeks, is played by Joe Mantello, who is perhaps best known for his directing work (Wicked, Assassins, and 9 to 5, among others), but whose last appearance on stage was in the original production of Angels in America, where he played Louis. Although he lost out on a Tony Award to the well-deserving Mark Rylance, Mr. Mantello is giving the performance of the season. We have no idea how he runs the emotional gamut of this show eight times a week, let alone twice in one day. Mantello plays a character who is so small in the scheme of things - just one man fighting against an epidemic and the entire city government of New York - but truly believes that he can become a force of nature, and is ultimately admirable in spite of all the bridges he burns because of that.

Ned's partner, Felix, is played by John Benjamin Hickey, who took home this year's Supporting Actor Tony for the role. As a lover, he is appropriately understated and powerfully influential over Ned, when the scene calls for it. Felix is one of several characters depicted or mentioned in the play who suffer from AIDS, making Ned's fight for awareness even more potent. Ellen Barkin, also a Tony winner for her role, plays the hardened shell of a woman who sees death every day and can't do anything to stop it with so much heart and so much rage. The fact that she is a victim of polio, contracting the disease just three months before the vaccine was released, draws an incredible parallel to the stories and journeys of those suffering from and fighting against AIDS. Her monologue in the second act, after a chairman of the medical board refuses her request for research funding, cannot be described as anything other than draining for both actor and audience. Additionally in act two, director Joel Grey's staging called for actors to remain visible to the audience and each other, lining the outskirts of the stage and looking on when not in a particular scene, and Barkin spent the entire act crying quietly off to the side.

The entire cast works together as a true team, as evidenced by their Drama Desk Award for Outstanding Ensemble Performance. A particular standout to me was Lee Pace as Bruce Niles, the group's elected president, for the strong presence he exerted. I'm not even sure how to go about giving him acclaim for his delivery of a monologue that chronicled the death of his partner. I'm not sure I've ever witnessed anything like that in a theater or in my life, let alone imagined that something like that could take place in the realm of humanity. Mark Harelik as Ben Weeks, who loves his brother Ned but can't quite let go of the idea that homosexuality is a choice, was also impressive in the depth he brought to his character.

A recurring theme mentioned in the play was the negative effect of the "sexual revolution" of the 1960s and 1970s, and what that did for the gay image (essentially creating the stereotype of equating homosexuality with promiscuity). As Dr. Brookner's character points out, having multiple partners spreads a disease like AIDS infinitely and needlessly. Another character's exclaimation, "If they'd just have let us gotten married in the first place, this wouldn't have happened!" drew spontaneous applause from a good portion of the audience, and I can only imagine what the reaction would be now, after the passage of marriage equality in the state of New York.

To be completely honest, parts of the show were painful to sit through - not only because they were so, so horrifically sad, but also because, as a straight female audience member, I felt a sense of removal. At times I felt that I didn't have the right to be sitting there, watching such intimate scenes of physical, emotional, and social suffering, when I've never had firsthand experience with or known someone who suffers from AIDS. And I suppose that feeling leads to my only fear about this production - that audiences will leave talking more about the play (i.e. the production values and actors, many of whom are well-known from film and television work) than the issues. Because the scariest thing is the relevancy of Kramer's play. As audience members leave the theater each night, ushers distribute copies of a letter written by Kramer (which can be read here), asking patrons to "please know that everything in The Normal Heart happened...please know that there is [still] no cure." (The production's final scene leaves Mantello and cast standing onstage, surrounded by projections of hundreds, thousands of names on the walls of the stage and theater of AIDS victims.) Many theater-goers of our generation are familiar with the depiction of AIDS in Rent and Angels in America, but after seeing The Normal Heart, it became all too real to me that nothing has changed. AIDS is still associated closely with homosexuality, funding for research is still minuscule, and millions continue to fall victim to the disease around the world.

If you have the means to see this production before it closes in two weeks, please do. We would also recommend making The Normal Heart your only theatrical experience of the day - I could not imagine seeing anything else, happy or otherwise, immediately following this show, as it requires some time to digest. And if you leave the theater with nothing else, we hope that this powerful production leaves you with a glimpse of the harm that ignorance can achieve, and the need for a continued sense of activism on behalf of all those affected in any way by that silence.


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