Past Reviews

Regional Reviews: Washington, D.C.

The Normal Heart

Also see Susan's review of Sister Mary Ignatius Explains It All for You

Patricia Wettig and Patrick Breen
Larry Kramer's 1985 play The Normal Heart is not easy to sit through, but it must be seen so people can understand the origins of the AIDS epidemic and how it developed. A work considered an overly angry polemic in its original production has shown itself, more than 25 years later, a genuinely moving historical document.

George C. Wolfe's exemplary production, currently being hosted by Arena Stage in its Kreeger Theater, originated last season on Broadway, winning the 2011 Tony Award for best revival of a play. Where it goes from Washington is uncertain, but one would hope it finds bookings in other cities (ACT in San Francisco opens its season with the play, with casting to be announced).

Kramer's saga begins in 1981 New York City, when Dr. Emma Brookner (Patricia Wettig) is treating young, healthy gay men who inexplicably become ill, soon weakening and dying. Ned Weeks (Patrick Breen), an abrasive writer, starts out looking for a story and becomes a leader in the drive to spread awareness of the illness throughout the gay community. The problem with Ned is that his bluntness and social awkwardness—not to mention his certainty that his ideas are always the correct ones—tend to alienate the people who should be his allies.

Ned is the playwright's alter ego, and it's likely that Kramer's rage is what has kept him alive and productive through decades of advocacy. In a flyer distributed to audience members after the performance, he stresses that the characters are all based on real people and the events depicted are true: for example, the tension between openly gay men like Ned and closeted men like Felix Turner (Luke MacFarlane), who worries about losing his job at the New York Times, and Bruce Niles (Nick Mennell), a former Green Beret who can't risk exposure. Another is Emma's suggestion that gay men—many of whom see unlimited access to sex as a primary benefit of "liberation"—temper their sexual activity since no one knew what caused the illness or how it was spread.

Wolfe has brought together a powerful ensemble; Breen and MacFarlane both appeared in the Broadway production but have moved into more central roles. The 10-member cast has no weak links, from Breen's bravado and Wettig's frustration and fury to MacFarlane's determination and Christopher J. Hanke's often hilarious attitude.

The action of the play is a war conducted in words, and David Rockwell's scenic design picks that up: the walls that appear to be plain white plaster actually are covered with information and statistics about the early history of AIDS. Projections designed by Batwin + Robin Productions set the scene and, periodically, report the increasing toll of the disease: 41 victims at the beginning, 75 million worldwide at present.

Arena Stage
The Normal Heart
June 8th - July 29th
By Larry Kramer
Craig Donner/Grady: Tom Berklund
Mickey Marcus: Michael Berresse
Ned Weeks: Patrick Breen
David: Chris Dinolfo
Dr. Emma Brookner: Patricia Wettig
Bruce Niles: Nick Mennell
Felix Turner: Luke MacFarlane
Ben Weeks: John Procaccino
Tommy Boatwright: Christopher J. Hanke
Hiram Keebler/Examining Doctor: Jon Levenson
Directed by George C. Wolfe
Kreeger Theater, Arena Stage at the Mead Center for American Theater, Sixth and Maine avenues SW Washington, DC Ticket Information: 202-488-3300 or

Photo: Scott Suchman