a review of ACT's production of Larry Kramer's The Normal Heart

By Velia De Iuliis

Photo: Keven Berne/©ACT
For my generation, people in their 20’s, AIDS is a bit of a distant topic. Everyone understands that it’s not good news, but it feels abstract, not lived, not a part of our consciousness, not in our faces everyday. Larry Kramer’s The Normal Heart is a reminder of what AIDS once felt like to those who had to face the disease head on, culturally, politically and sexually. The Normal Heart premiered in 1985 in the beginning of the middle of the crisis, when everyone was thinking about AIDS, whether they wanted to or not.

What the play did was focus attention on a real horror story going on right in front of us. It offered, sometimes with a rude and searing intensity, any number of answers, many of them that people both on the right and left found unacceptable. Kramer, in his play and in his life (he is one of the founders of ACT UP!) refused to let the deaths of thousands of mostly gay men pass unnoticed, but as if to twist the knife further he finds us all responsible—straight, gay and everyone in between. It must have been a bracing message back in 1985 and we have to ask ourselves if it is just as bracing today. Has The Normal Heart become a museum piece or does it still retain its emotional and political bite. The answer: absolutely. It plunges you back in a time when AIDS was synonymous with extreme pain, social ostracism and death. This is a shaky experience for people who didn’t live through it first hand and it’s probably a shaky experience for those who did.

The play takes place in New York City at the beginning of the epidemic. It is the story of a close group of friends who fight against AIDS on many fronts, from caring for the sick to even getting people to acknowledge the existence of the disease, which in hindsight feels so cruel and unjust. Remember then President Ronald Regan wouldn’t even say the word, even though he must have known a good many victims. As AIDS decimates the gay population, Kramer depicts politicians, the media, even doctors turning a blind eye to the infected and the gay community. The protagonist Ned, (played by a talented Patrick Breen) is a Jewish New York intellectual, much like Kramer, who is easily angered. His frustration and temper brings great strain on the group’s friendships, even though he is the reason they act up politically and, in a more heartening sense, the reason why they even stay together socially. Watching Ned’s desperation is like watching a man confront a total apocalypse—it has the sweep and power of an Old Testament tale.
Ned (Patrick Breen) explodes in fury
Photo: Scott Suchman/©ACT
George Wolfe’s production possesses the great virtue of getting out of the way of the play. The set design is minimal. It has only three permanent fixtures: three white walls, which have extruded writing on the surface. The design achieves what films cannot. The production doesn’t hide behind special effects or recreated realism, but forces you to see the play in its most raw form. There are no flourishes, which is clearly a purposeful decision and the right one. The acting mimics the design. There are no showy performances, but an emphasis on the ensemble and clarity. A quite sympathetic character, Mickey Marcus (Michael Berresse), breaks down in front of his friends. He explains how the group’s organization and public outreach is affecting his personal and professional life, how he considered committing suicide from the pressure and how he is about to lose his job. It is simply awful to watch, but Kramer makes us realize that getting sick and dying isn’t the only way that AIDS, and especially in its virulent politics, destroyed people’s lives. Berresse’s scene isn’t so much a showstopper (in another play or production it might have been a melodramatic ploy for sympathy), but a carefully calibrated depiction of what, for this group of friends, became a terrifying norm. Wolfe and his actors place the emphasis on the social and everyday and it is devastating to experience.

Photo: Kevin Berne/©ACT
The cohesiveness between the production, writing, design and acting allows you to enter a world that although close in time, less than 30 years ago, has become somewhat distant. The Normal Heart forces us not only to think about our past, but also what we are facing all over the world today. It may be a manageable disease in America and Europe, but the struggle for decent medical treatment and education in third world countries is still a grotesque injustice. Those people who have experienced the AIDS epidemic first hand will feel a true connection to this production and those who have not will understand the vast impact AIDS has on our society and the ways in which it has and still damages all of us.

©Velia De Iuliis & CCA Arts Review

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