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Seattle by David-Edward Hughes

An Emotionally Walloping The Normal Heart from Strawberry Theatre Workshop at Erickson Theatre


Rob Burgess and Greg Lyle-Newton
More than a quarter century has passed since Larry Kramer's passionate and political play The Normal Heart was among the first full-length works chronicling the early years of the HIV/AIDS epidemic, and those gay men and physicians at the forefront of heightening public awareness and searching for a cure. I myself hadn't seen the play since 1988, and wondered how well it would hold up. That the current production by Strawberry Theatre Workshop at the Erickson Theatre can be described as must-see theatre is as much due to Kramer's playwriting as it is to the steady and masterful hand of director Sheila Daniels and a cast that makes the material resonate as pungently as ever.

Kramer's semi-autobiographical tale takes place in New York from 1981-1984, and its central character (the Kramer surrogate) is Ned Weeks, a loud-mouth, opinionated gay writer who helps band together the first organization determined to raise awareness of the strange new plague that is spreading through the gay community. His medical colleague is polio survivor Dr. Emma Brookner who is treating many of the early patients, at a time when fear ruled amongst her fellow physicians. The closeted and conservative Bruce Niles is elected president of the organization, the good cop to Ned's bad cop. Early on in the play, Ned meets Felix, a flamboyant New York Times fashion writer with whom he begins his first monogamous relationship. Ned battles bureaucracy, the seeming indifference of his own brother Ben, and turmoil within his own organization spurred by his in your face behavior, while Felix receives confirmation that he has the AID virus. The play skillfully spins out the personal and political stories and between scenes, the actors movingly recite names of some whose lives have been lost to AIDS through the years.

Actor Greg Lyle-Newton gives a world-class performance as Ned, showing the heart within a soul who could clearly scare away even his most devoted allies. In his hands Ned makes you laugh, cry, and get pissed off, but he remains someone you can admire for the strength of his passionate convictions. Peter Crook is an in ideal contrast as Bruce, whose seeming emotional detachment and conservatism belie his own fears. Andrew Russell is captivating as Felix, and makes his decline into ill health moving to behold. Rob Burgess is ideal as Ben Weeks, and he and Lyle-Newton are adept at showing us the complex relationship of the two very different brothers. Stephen Black scores as Mickey, whose own efforts in early gay liberation and sexual freedom seem challenged by Ned's views that the gay community needs to follow safe sex practices till a cure is found. Amy Thone as Dr. Emma Brookner brilliantly and quietly builds an utterly human character, and her seething act two monologue is a highpoint of the production. Brian Culbertson as Tommy is a warm, likable presence, while Simon Hamlin is solid as the mayor's assistant Hiram.

Director Daniels has orchestrated these performances into a fine ensemble, and she keeps the action engrossing throughout an over three-hour running time.

The Normal Heart is not just moving drama, it is an engrossing history lesson for those too young to have experienced the struggles and lessons of the era it portrays. Don't wait for the anticipated HBO version this spring, see this now!

Strawberry Theatre Workshop's The Normal Heart runs at the Erickson Theatre, 1524 Harvard Ave on Seattle's Capitol Hill through February 15th. For tickets or information visit them online at www.strawshop.org.


Photo: Erik Stulhaug



- David Edward Hughes



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