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San Francisco by Richard Connema

A Stunning Production of Larry Kramer's The Normal Heart

Also see Richard's review of The Death of the Novel

The Normal Heart
Michael Berresse and Patrick Breen
A powerful production of Larry Kramer's The Normal Heart is currently being presented at the American Conservatory Theatre, in association with Arena Stage. The recent Broadway production won the 2011 Tony for Best Revival of a Play.

I first saw this potent play at the Public Theatre 30 years ago when there was just a whisper of the dreaded disease. I thought at the time it would never affect my life. Since then AIDS has touched my life with the loss of dear friends both in New York, Los Angeles and San Francisco.

The American Conservatory Theatre production is magnificent. A time capsule of the birth and early evolution of the AIDS crisis, The Normal Heart follows a group of men who form an unnamed organization (that represents Gay Men's Health Crisis) in 1981. Chief protestor and most outspoken is Ned Weeks (Patrick Breen), a writer prickling with nervous energy and a frustration of helplessness as a growing number of his friends and acquaintances are getting sick and dying. He gives so many passionate speeches during the two hour and 15 minute production that your nerves will be frayed and your tear ducts dry. The last emotional scenes with his lover Felix (Matt McGrath), who is dying of AIDS, are deeply moving.

The combination of the genius of director George C. Wolfe and the re-created staging by Leah C. Gardiner is fantastic, with impassioned exchanges between the characters and the scorching and temporizing gay activist. Every scene is quickly paced and there is a flurry of facts coming at you at breakneck speed. Even the actors in the smallest roles have terrific presence and impact. Patrick Alparone, who plays AIDS victim David and also understudies many of the other parts, gives a touching performance in his small role at the beginning of the play. Nick Mennell is poignant as Bruce, a former Green Beret and now a CEO who isn't conformable being politically radical. His scene in the second act where he details the gruesome death of his lover and the mortifying lack of public sympathy is petrifying.

Sean Duncan brings a sense of humor to Larry Kramer's work as Tommy, "the Southern belle" and a friend to all. He is perfect as the flamboyant gay man, yet he never goes over the top with this flashy character. Michael Berresse gives a winning performance as the nervous Mickey, whose job with the Mayor's office is on the line when it is discovered he is a gay activist. He gives a heart-wrenching emotional monologue in the second act. Equally excellent is Jon Levenson who plays two parts, Mayor Koch's aide and the Examining Doctor at the CDC.

Jordon Baker plays the militant, wheelchair-bound polio doctor Emma Brookner (she understudied Ellen Barkin in the New York production) and is riveting in the role. She finds the accurate articulation for the medical analysis and a perfect tone of indignation for the passionate speech she delivers after the doctor is turned down once again for a grant to do research for the unpopular disease.

Matt McGrath is wonderful as witty, gentle-hearted fashion writer Felix. He is reserved and appealing, sincere and strong, and has that perfect All-American face. It is really difficult to watch his smiling face morph into a man in the last phases of AIDS. Bruce Altman is very good as the high-powered lawyer Ben Weeks, brother of Ned. Ben represents the "straight/legal" voice of Kramer's drama. Tom Berklund gives a great physical performance as Craig, showing the physical toll the virus takes.

The Normal Heart is powerfully summed up on the whitewashed bare-brick walls of David Rockwell's cube of a set, starkly illuminated by lighting designer David Weiner and the projections of names of those who have died of AIDS by Batwin & Robin Prods.

The Normal Heart plays through October 7 at the American Conservatory Theatre, 415 Geary Street, San Francisco. For tickets call 415-749-2228) or visit www.act-sf.org. Coming up next for A.C.T. is Carey Perloff's acclaimed production of Sophocles' tragedy Electra starring Olympia Dukakis opening on October 25 and running through November 18th.


Photo: Scott Suchman


Cheers - and be sure to Check the lineup of great shows this season in the San Francisco area

- Richard Connema



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