Past Reviews

Regional Reviews: Albuquerque/Santa Fe

The Normal Heart
Santa Fe Playhouse
Review by Mark Dunn

Also see Billy's review of Macbeth and Rob's review of Come Blow Your Horn


Welde Carmichael and Hania Stocker
Photo by Michael Blake Oldham
The theater has always had the power to change hearts and minds in ways that movies and television cannot. Indeed, some would say it's the mission of the stage to say all those things that can't be so incisively addressed in other artistic venues (in spite of the fact that Oscar-contending "serious" films and "very special episodes" of popular sitcoms give it the old college try).

When it premiered in 1985 during some of the darkest days of the AIDS epidemic, Larry Kramer's groundbreaking work for the stage, The Normal Heart, was the theatrical equivalent of yelling "fire" in a crowded theater—that theater being Joseph Papp's Public Theater in New York. The fire was an epidemic that was killing gay men across the country, but especially in New York City, and nobody, from President Reagan down to New York's Mayor Koch and the city's health department was doing a thing about it.

The Normal Heart is a messy play, just as the AIDS plague constituted a messy, complicated, ultimately shameful chapter in our national biography. It was Kramer's recognition of this fact in real time that fired up all the engines of this deeply personal work, which was and remains polemical, pamphleteering, provocative, and movingly passionate. Those who, like me, put down their own stakes in New York City to work in the theatre in the mid-1980s couldn't avoid being touched by the reality of the epidemic, which took such a heavy toll on New York's theatre community. I, like thousands of others, lost friends and theatre colleagues to the disease. The names of those who succumbed, especially in the early days of the epidemic covered by the play—roughly 1981 to 1984—are chillingly illuminated on the walls of the set in this spare but arresting revival guided by the talented directorial hand of Santa Fe newcomer, Duchess Dale.

Dale understands the untidiness of Kramer's fierce theatrical screed, which whipsaws its audience from moments which call for the recitation of deadly fact and statistic (at one point a character admits to knowing forty different men who had died of what would later be known as AIDS) to those other moments of wrenching sadness, as the disease is given a human face, invested by characters with whom we come to identify or at least take steps to try to understand.

As Ned Weeks, the play's protagonist—a self-admitted stand-in for Kramer himself—Hania Stocker takes up the challenge of putting flesh on the bones of a character who is intense and deliberately confrontational, but redeemed by his passion and determination to take action. In Stocker's case, the job of bringing life to Ned is benefited by a spot-on performance by one of Santa Fe's best thespians.

Hats off to the Playhouse and to Ms. Dale for not doubling any of the play's dozen roles (even though seldom do more than five characters appear onstage at the same time) and allowing so many of our community's talented actors to show off their chops—even if in several cases they are only permitted by Kramer's crowded script a very short time for their struts and frets upon this particular stage. Three stand-out performances are worth noting. As the only distaff member of the cast, Lorri Layle Oliver gives a fine turn as Dr. Emma Brookner, a character loosely based on Dr. Linda Laubenstein, who had the difficult challenge of treating some of the earliest cases of a disease with a genesis that was then still a mystery and without even a name by which to refer to it. (HIV wasn't coined until 1986.) Oliver plays Brookner's frustration and intermittent hopelessness to the hilt, and the character's soliloquized attack on the federal bureaucracy and the American medical establishment for their inaction is spellbinding.

I was especially impressed by David McConnell's interpretation of Mickey Marcus, who melds both the campy sweetness of a Nathan Lane with expressions of deep-seated fear and desperation that tears at the soul. The arc of Welde Carmichael's performance as Ned's lover Felix is fascinating to watch and in the end almost difficult to watch, given Felix's prescribed fate.

The costumes are appropriate to the period without drawing too much attention to themselves. (It's always best, in this writer's opinion, not to draw too much attention to the excesses of the clothing styles of the 1980s. Xanadu is sufficient for that purpose.) And while I know that the play calls for an uncluttered set that allows for swift scene changes, I might have wished to see a little more aesthetic cohesion in the set pieces. The lighting design could also use some sort of defining creative imprint, though the projections, which offer up facts and statistics about the early days of the epidemic, give a valuable context for this story.

A small matter, but one that this writer greatly appreciated: there's a moment late in the play in which Ned's lover Felix has decided to stop fighting his disease with wise dietary choices, this fact sending Ned into a tirade which requires tossing healthy food he's just procured across the room. It culminates in Ned's pouring a carton of milk all over the floor. I credit Ms. Dale for allowing this messy scene to play as it was written. It's my belief that it wasn't a silly reference to crying over spilled milk that Kramer was going for, but a memorializing nod to the slain gay San Francisco supervisor Harvey Milk.

This is a dense, angry, confrontational play—a denunciation of homophobia as much as it was and still remains a controversial indictment of a culture that closed its own eyes to what was happening all around it, to its disastrous detriment. However, as a piece of theater that runs over two and a half hours, it is no challenge to an audience, which has the privilege of seeing this polemical drama revisited in the hands of a creatively gifted director and a strong, talented cast—a cast that understands the importance of everything the piece has to say about social justice and the right to love as one's heart dictates.

The Santa Fe Playhouse continues to put on its stage works that incite and engage while they entertain. It serves the mission of an art form that has the capacity, indeed the duty, to both raise its fist and to stage-whisper its aching truths. Our community continues to be uplifted by the Playhouse's ambitious offerings.

The Normal Heart , directed by Duchess Dale, is being performed at the Santa Fe Playhouse, 142 East De Vargas Street, Santa Fe. Thursday, Friday, Saturday at 7:30, Sundays at 2:00. Through June 25, 2017. Info at www.santafeplayhouse.org or 505-988-4262. The running time is about two and three-quarters hours, including intermission.


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