The Normal Heart
It's as if a clutch of our finest actors were constantly dodging, out of the way of any trace of melodramawhile barely keeping a steady grip on reason, with every ounce of their willpower. They dart aside physically, an angstrom this way, and then a millimeter that way, as the news of the AIDS crisis gets worse and worse in the early 1980s. Like prize fighters in a ring, they bob and weave, and take a beating from a killer they don't yet understand.
In act two, things have swung totally out of control. But Cassandra-like Ned (leading man John Flack, outstanding in the role of a lifetime) has finally found love. Ironically, it's with a man from the New York Times, which has proven just as reluctant to broach the subject of a "gay plague" as the Reagan Administration in Washington. Tough times indeed for Ned, and a small group of friends who form the Gay Men's Health Crisis to deal with AIDS on a social level, and to try to turn grief and hysteria into something more productive.
Marty Stanberry directs, achieving a brilliant, sustained chaos throughout. The play was written by Larry Kramer and based on his own real-life experience helping found the GMHC (he also helped found ACT UP). In 2011, the Tonys named it Best Revival of a Play, after its debut in 1985 at the Public Theatre. There's a riveting sense of rising panic, and anguish over local and federal governments' fear of getting involved; and tenderness, and rebelliousness, and scorching self-examination aplenty.
But there are also great moments of character-born humoras when Lavonne Byers casts a withering glance toward Ned: she plays the doctor who's seen the largest number of these mysterious ailments among gay men, before the disease was ever quite understood. Ned makes some gallant little comment about Dr. Brookner not being able to understand a promiscuous life, and her whole expression just goes sardonically, stony cold. Her sadder-but-wiser countenance flashes by in a second, but it's one of a dozen arid, comic bits you might not expect.
Later, she has a stunning clash with a federal grant administrator (Stephen Peirick), a sustained interval of underplayed outrage that explodes in bitterness, barely concealed by scientific professionalism. The whole play ransacks our reason, as everyone on stage tries (and fails, in one way or another) to keep it together.
Eric Dean White is great as Ned's lover, and like so many scenes in the play we learn a lot from him and the others about the wildly promiscuous years leading up to the AIDS crisis. But, from people like Tim Schall (as Mickey), we also find out why promiscuity became a kind of psychotherapy. And from Paul Cereghino (as an aide to Mayor Ed Koch) how hard it was to straddle the fence between the political and the personal.
The title of the play seems to grow out of Ned's relationship with his brother (Greg Johnston, as Ben, full of lawyerly aplomb). Ben's development, toward understanding and acceptance, is understated and full of quiet warmth. Reginald Pierre plays a Citibank vice president, and a founding member of the GMHCputting him, too, in an extremely awkward position in those days. It's an understated role that could get trampled by all the other performances. But Mr. Pierre manages to hold the center of attention, in his anxiety and exasperation.
Ben Watts, as the self-proclaimed "southern bitch," is hilarious and endearingusually he's the stand-out of any cast he's in, from Psycho Beach Party to Little Shop Of Horrors. But here you might get a minor case of whiplash from trying to keep track of everything every one of these top-level actors is doing.
Good critics like to watch closely and, likewise, good audiences will be amply rewarded for giving these performers their undivided attention.
Through September 27, 2014, at the Kranzberg Arts Center, 501 North Grand Blvd., between Saint Louis University and the Fox Theatre. For more information visit www.hotcitytheatre.org or call (314) 289-4063.
* Denotes member, Actors Equity Association, the association of professional actors and stage managers in the USA