If issue-related plays date more quickly than other types of theatre, it's impossible to tell from the Worth Street Theater Company's powerful revival of The Normal Heart at the Public Theater's Anspacher Theater.
Larry Kramer's drama chronicling the early years of AIDS and its effects on New York's gay population opened at the Public Theater in 1985 carrying a heavy historical burden. Part lecture and part rallying cry, it was a snapshot of the anger, fear, and hope of a group of people staring down a disease they could barely identify, let alone fight. AIDS in The Normal Heart is an almost invisible Armageddon that reveals itself perhaps too late to be stopped, and at that point in time, the conclusion was perhaps not far removed from the truth.
Viewing The Normal Heart today - the original production opened on April 21, 1985 - it seems clear that the play's importance has not diminished, only changed. Now, the story of Ned Weeks (based on Kramer himself) and his quest to spread the word about the disease before he and everyone he knows falls to it, plays as a modern tragedy of the Death of a Salesman school, a dramatic depiction of people awash in a sea of uncertainty. (That uncertainty has not fully abated even today.)
Of course, some problems are unavoidable: the play is occasionally overladen with statistics that threaten to drive important points home through repetition rather than dramatization, and a number of characters are sketched more than fully drawn. But none of this can prevent The Normal Heart from being provocative, moving drama that - despite, or perhaps because of, the many medical advancements that have been made - still seems relevant.
That's due to one of the play's central themes, the search for identity in a fast-changing world. This is relayed primarily through Ned (Raśl Esparza), who sees many of his friends wither and die, in part because they're unwilling to relinquish the sexual liberation they fought so hard to earn. Yet Ned's attempts to bring the dangers to light exacerbate the problem, his outspoken attitude and tendency to fly off the handle winning him few friends and troubling even those who agree with him.
From a 2004 vantage point, this makes the play appear almost exclusively as Ned's personal tragedy. But rather than dilute the play's overall impact, this makes the encroachment of the outside epidemic on Ned's most intimate world even more effective. When Ned's lover Felix (Billy Warlock) begins to develop the early symptoms of AIDS, it becomes the ultimate betrayal; Ned can see his efforts going up in smoke before his eyes, and it threatens to ruin his life just as it has already ruined so many others.
These moments are unquestionably moving, thanks to Esparza's performance and David Esbjornson's, both of which are excellent. The two men work diligently at defining the play's emotional and physical atmosphere: the crisp and clean look of the early scenes, for example, giving way to a junk-filled battleground from which only tiny clumps of order can be seen above the chaos. Esbjornson's direction is sensitive and flawlessly paced, covering the play's 16 scenes (set between 1981 and 1984) beautifully, with some fine aid from set designer Eugene Lee and lighting designer Ken Billington.
Warlock brilliantly and heartbreakingly portrays Felix's gradual physical and emotional decline; Mark Dobies is attractively understated as the closeted Bruce Niles, who becomes president of an AIDS organization (based on the Gay Men's Health Crisis) but is unwilling to take much public action; and Fred Berman, as one of Ned's friends and associates, eloquently and emotionally depicts the mainstream gay community's issues with Ned's crusade. Richard Bekins and Joanna Gleason are challenged with the play's most synthetic and difficult roles - Ned's brother and a doctor on the forefront of the AIDS epidemic - but only intermittently succeed at bringing them convincingly to life.
Esparza comes off the best, his Ned caring, maniacal, and monstrous, as likely to tear off a droll comment as he is to scream when he doesn't get his way. If Esparza occasionally reads a bit young for the role and sometimes overplays his hand, the overall effect is a profound one; it's a performance that infects your blood and overwhelms your emotions, almost making you want to embrace and strangle Ned at the same time.
There's no doubt that Kramer is much the same way - both a passionate, charismatic activist and someone who is about as off-putting as they come. Perhaps Kramer's greatest achievement in The Normal Heart - which this production so elegantly brings out - is that he spares no one, including (or perhaps especially) himself, from indictment for their actions or inactions in the early days of AIDS.
That frankness is what has made The Normal Heart a frustrating - yet ultimately rewarding - theatrical necessity for almost twenty years and will continue to do so in the future. It forgives no one for their innate human failings, but hopes for the best in its characters and all of us. The Normal Heart, once timely, is now timeless.