Watching David Cromer as gay rights activist Ned Weeks storm the stage, with his hands over his face in a perpetual mixture of anger, outrage and fear, is not unlike watching a staged panic attack. And rightly so: the world is crumbling around Ned (a stand-in for playwright and groundbreaking activist Larry Kramer) with no end in sight. He's fighting a battle against an unknown enemy, while those who should be supporting him are either cowering behind their shields or have their heads in the sand.
The Normal Heart is a necessary play. When it premiered Off Broadway in 1985 -- when the HIV/AIDS epidemic was just starting to get a glimmer of exposure following thousands of deaths -- it served primarily as an emotional gut punch to open the eyes of those looking the other direction. Nearly 30 years later, this play, which is receiving a powerful production by Timeline Theatre at Stage 773, proves a sobering reminder of a crisis that happened not too long ago -- and continues to this day.
It's also a solidly structured play, clearly written from a place of urgency. What makes this play connect at such a deep emotional level is the love story Kramer has embedded into it. As Ned's lover, Felix, Patrick Andrews brings a youthful naiveté that balances out Ned's intensity. It also personalizes the issue, giving a face and a story to this nondiscriminatory disease.
This is also a story about activism. Ned forms a cracker-jack team of gay volunteers to help spread the word about the disease, some of them more reluctant than others to be exposed as "gay activists." It's a powerful reminder about the difficulties of creating advocacy when you have no voice in the established system. It's also a reminder of how far LGBT rights have come, thanks to the unrelenting work of people like Kramer.
As the fiercely pragmatic Dr.Emma Brookner, Mary Beth Fisher represents the scientific argument to support Ned's emotional pleas. "Her boys," as she calls them, are dying at alarming rates, and no one seems to be doing anything about it. Fisher's blood-boiling monologue, where she scathingly calls out the government's ineptitude in responding to the crisis after being denied research funds, is one of the more stunning moments you'll experience in a theatre.
I've been recommending this production to everyone I talk to. Having grown up in a generation that bypassed the worst of the HIV/AIDS epidemic, it's crucial that we remember the struggles endured and the lessons learned. It's also one of those rare instances where powerful, necessary playwriting meets a rock-solid production committed to telling this story in an unapologetic, emotionally raw way.
"The Normal Heart" plays through December 22 at Stage 773. More info here >
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