The Normal Heart
Also see Nancy's review of Kurt Vonnegut's Make Up Your Mind
Playwright and gay rights activist Larry Kramer's The Normal Heart at Zeitgeist Stage Company is a searing chronicle of the sexual politics of New York City during the AIDS crisis in the early 1980s, setting the fear, confusion and grief of individual young men in high relief against the backdrop of a cowardly or, worse, uncaring government. In the words of David J. Miller, artistic director of Zeitgeist and director of the play, "It's kind of the seminal work of the gay theater." Written in 1985, The Normal Heart was as much a part of Kramer's work to link a sense of urgency to the crisis as it was historical documentation. Informed by all that has happened over the last three decades, as well as all that has not, viewing it in 2013 is an absorbing and sobering experience.
The play's protagonist and stand-in for Kramer is Ned Weeks (Victor Shopov), an outspoken and abrasive activist who tries to educate and rally the gay community to gain attention from the media and action by the government. While he maintains a high profile in public, he is facing personal issues with his straight brother Ben (Peter Brown), an attorney in a prominent law firm, and becoming romantically involved with Felix (Joey C. Pelletier), a fashion writer for The New York Times. Weeks is drawn into the fray by Dr. Emma Brookner (Maureen Adduci), a physician who specializes in treating patients with the mysterious new ailment. She expresses to Weeks her frustration at the lack of leadership in the gay world, cajoling him to step up and eventually form the nonprofit organization Gay Men's Health Crisis.
As the disease progresses unabated and the number of deaths grows, the pressure mounts on Weeks and his fellow volunteers. Bruce Niles (Mario Da Rosa Jr.), a closeted, conservative African American employed in a high level position at CitiBank, is chosen as president of the group over Weeks due to his diplomatic style. A city health department aide, excitable Mickey Marcus (Mikey Diloreto), and a hospital administrator transplanted from the South, smooth conciliator Tommy Boatwright (Mike Meadors), are key contributors, stuffing envelopes and manning the phones at the center. With little money and little public support, they fly by the seat of their pants, trying to get their message across. After months of being ignored by Mayor Koch, they finally get a meeting with his snarky assistant, Hiram Keebler (David Lutheran), who makes veiled threats about Mickey's job and offers them nothing.
Miller's spare set design directs our focus to the actors who virtually live this story and these characters. Shopov gives a compelling performance in the role of the lightning rod Weeks, wearing his heart on his sleeve and clearly displaying all of the fervor, rage, intelligence, frustration, love and grief he experienced during the three years covered in the play. His volatility is nicely offset in scenes with his conservative big brother (Brown strikes the right standoffish pose), his ally Emma, and in his softer moments with Felix.
Despite her character being in a wheelchair as a result of a bout with polio, Adduci shows a steely resolve and a direct bedside manner. Emma is like Don Quixote tilting at windmills, except that her enemies are real; Adduci nails the scene where Emma faces questioning from a government doctor who rejects her application for funding her research. Pelletier has a sweet rapport with her, and shows the real strength of his character as his challenges mount. Diloreto captures Mickey's nebbishy flamboyance and downward spiral in a breakout performance, his first at Zeitgeist Stage.
Scene after scene is filled with powerful dramatic content, augmented by newsreel footage projected on an upstage screen. Among all of these scenes, there is one that stands out as emblematic, which resonates the loudest of them all. You can hear a pin drop when Niles relates a gripping account of the final hours of his boyfriend's life. With Weeks looking on in quiet horror and disbelief, Da Rosa speaks softly and barely moves, lovingly telling the story of man's inhumanity to man, ready to burst from the degradation he suffered and the burden of his guilt and grief. In that moment, and in later moments between Shopov and Pelletier, and Shopov and Brown, the torrent of emotion is felt like a bolt of electricity in the room.
Reflecting his own commitment to The Normal Heart, Miller draws deeply felt performances across the board from this tight ensemble, which also includes Kyle Cherry in multiple roles. His design team consists of Michael Clark Wonson (lighting), Michael Flowers (projection), J Jumbelic (sound) and Costume Designer Meredith Magoun who conjures up the '80s with spread collars and flared-leg trousers. Nary is a false note sounded in this riveting production that never feels dated or, at just under three hours, overlong.
As per the stage directions, facts and figures about the epidemic are posted on the walls surrounding the audience. It is unfathomable to read bullet points like: 50% of men who have sex with men do not use condoms, almost 70 million people have been infected with the HIV virus since the epidemic began, or that there are currently 35 million people in the world living with AIDS. When the action of the play begins, there were just 41 known cases. How much different might the global outcome have been if their condition had been viewed with greater urgency by the media, health professionals and government leaders? What if the illness had not been dismissed with the glib acronym GRID (Gay-Related Immune Deficiency)? What if people like Larry Kramer and David J. Miller did not speak out? One can only imagine.
The Normal Heart, performances through November 23 by Zeitgeist Stage Company at Plaza Black Box Theater, Boston Center for the Arts, 539 Tremont Street, Boston, MA; Box Office 617-933-8600 or www.zeitgeiststage.com. Written by Larry Kramer, Direction & Scenic Design by David J. Miller; Costume Design, Meredith Magoun; Lighting Design, Michael Clark Wonson; Sound Design, J Jumbelic; Projection Design, Michael Flowers; Stage Manager, Cassandra Lovering
Cast (in order of appearance): Kyle Cherry, Mikey Diloreto, Victor Shopov, David Lutheran, Maureen Adduci, Mario Da Rosa Jr., Joey C. Pelletier, Peter Brown, Mike Meadors