Feeds:
Posts
Comments

Posts Tagged ‘larry kramer’

The Normal Heart
by Larry Kramer
Directed by Gary F. Bell
Stray Dog Theatre
June 8, 2022

Stephen Peirick, Joey Saunders
Photo by John Lamb
Stray Dog Theatre

Depending on your age, the early days of the AIDS crisis may be living memory for you, or something you’ve only heard and/or read about after the fact. Even if you do remember, the level of detail you remember depends on level of involvement or whether you or anyone you knew was directly affected. For Larry Kramer and his friends in New York City in the early 1980s, the growing crisis was an unavoidable daily reality, as was the fight for recognition, funding, and care for the growing number of people suffering and dying as a result of the virus, before the virus was even identified or named. In Stray Dog Theatre’s production of Kramer’s acclaimed play The Normal Heart, the sense of urgency is readily apparent, as is the focus on the real people behind the fight for recognition and care against increasingly frustrating opposition. With a strong cast and highly effective staging, this is a show that cuts to heart, profoundly and affectingly.

The story and the people represented in this play are real, as noted in the voiceover at the beginning and in a letter from Kramer published in the program. There are elements of dramatization because it’s a play, and the names have been changed, but this is essentially Kramer’s account of his involvement in the development of an activist movement in the early 1980s in New York City, in response to a lack of urgency in the media and public as the news of the virus and its spread–largely among gay men. Kramer is represented here in the person of activist writer Ned Weeks (Stephen Peirick), who is affected in various ways, as he realizes that several people he knows are getting sick and dying, and little to nothing is being done. He and several other friends, including closeted businessman Bruce Niles (Jeffrey M. Wright) and health department employee Mickey Marcus (Jonathan Hey) start a new organization that focuses on raising awareness and helping those affected by it. As Ned and his friends fight for funding and support from the city government and the press, they also deal with tensions among themselves, as Ned’s confrontational approach gets a lot of pushback, and Ned grows increasingly impatient. Ned also navigates various personal relationships in his life, from his friendships in the organization to his new romance with society and fashion writer Felix Turner (Joey Saunders), to his increasingly difficult relationship with his straight, well-to-do lawyer brother, Ben (David Wassilak). The medical research side of the AIDS epidemic is also addressed through the character of Dr. Emma Brookner (Sarajane Alverson), a friend of Ned’s who is treating increasing numbers of patients and is losing her patience with the medical establishment, who don’t seem to take her seriously. There’s a lot of story here, but it’s grounded in a human focus. We see real struggles here, and credible relationships, as a well a profound sense of growing urgency and a current of grief, as the crisis continues to grow, and the numbers of deaths increases at an overwhelming rate.

This play is at once intensely personal and grander in scope, with an effort to document the early days of a movement while also increasing that movement’s reach and furthering its goals, all the while emphasizing the humanity and personhood of the people affected. The patients and victims are not just names on the stacks of boxes that fill the stage in Stray Dog’s production. They are people, with hopes, dreams, emotions, and very real fears. The sense of urgency is palpable here, as is the sheer level of emotion and the intensity of the grief as the crisis grows and gets closer and closer to the personal lives of Ned and his friends. The setting and staging of the play reflects that sense of urgency and quest for recognition, with a simple but effective set by Justin Been, striking atmospheric lighting by Tyler Duenow, and dynamic staging by director Gary F. Bell, who also served as costume designer. The look of the production isn’t as time-period specific as it could be, but that’s not a problem because a more timeless style lends to the immediacy of the production. 

The biggest strength of this production is it’s impressive cast, with no weak links and excellent ensemble energy. Peirick’s Ned is at the center, in the best performance I’ve seen from this already excellent actor.  Peirick convincingly portrays all the sides of Ned, from caring friend and boyfriend to frustrated brother to firebrand activist. There are also excellent turns from Wright, Hey, and Alverson, who all get intense “showcase” monologue moments in the second act. Saunders and Wassilak are also convincing in their roles as key figures in Ned’s life–his new boyfriend, and his brother. Saunders especially portrays the tragedy and struggle with compelling intensity. There’s also strong support from Jeremy Goldmeier and Michael Hodges in a variety of roles. 

The Normal Heart is a play you won’t forget, especially as staged by Stray Dog Theatre’s stunningly effective company. This is an era of history that you may or may not remember directly, but it’s important not to forget, even as strides have been made in the treatment and care of HIV/AIDS. It’s not just something from a history book or documentary. It’s a human story about real people. It’s important to put faces to all those names, and this production does that with poignant sensitivity and drama. 

Stephen Peirick, Jeffrey M. Wright, Stephen Henley
Photo by John Lamb
Stray Dog Theatre

Stray Dog Theatre is presenting The Normal Heart at Tower Grove Abbey until June 25th, 2022

Read Full Post »

The Normal Heart
by Larry Kramer
Directed by Marty Stanberry
HotCity Theatre
September 13, 2014

Reginald Pierre, John Flack Photo: Todd Studios HotCity Theatre

Reginald Pierre, John Flack
Photo: Todd Studios
HotCity Theatre

The Normal Heart is an intense play about an intense and important subject.   Larry Kramer’s semi-autobiographical play about the early years of the AIDS crisis in New York City is a highly emotional work that is going to seem like a history lesson to a lot of modern theatregoers. To Kramer, who first produced this play in 1985, this was immediate reality.  HotCIty theatre has brought that sense of immediacy and urgency to their production of this intense, highly personal play that serves as a reminder that life is lot more fragile and precious than we sometimes realize, and that all human beings are worthy of respect and dignity. It’s also a needed reminder that the epidemic isn’t over, and much work still needs to be done.

For 2014 audiences, and especially those under 30, it may be difficult to imagine the world before the AIDS epidemic, and especially the early years of discovery and heartbreaking loss.  The Normal Heart takes us into that world firsthand, as Kramer recounts a fictionalized version of his own activist efforts in the early years of the crisis, before AIDS and HIV had names.  The story follows writer Ned Weeks (John Flack) and a small group of gay men in New York City who are increasingly troubled by the spreading of a mysterious disease that is killing many of their friends and being largely ignored by the mainstream media. It also follows Dr. Emma Brookner (Lavonne Byers), a compassionate doctor and paraplegic polio survivor who is diagnosing case after case of the strange illness and seeing her patients die, leading her on a quest for answers.  Spurred on by Emma’s concern and by the increasing death toll among his circle of friends, Ned encourages his friends Bruce (Reginald Pierre) and Mickey (Tim Schall) to help him start an organization to help raise awareness about the disease and collect money for research. Ned is a firebrand, with a confrontational style and a zeal that often clashes not only with apathetic government officials and the media, but with his friends’ more cautious approach, spurring debates about methods to prevent the spread of the disease that lead into issues of identity and the focus and methods of activism within the gay community.  Meanwhile, Ned also deals with his relationship with his straight, lawyer brother Ben (Greg Johnston), from whom he seeks acceptance and support.  In the midst of all these conflicts, the abrasive Ned is also discovering new love in his developing romance with New York Times fashion reporter Felix (Eric Dean White), who eventually finds himself diagnosed with the disease. As time goes by, the sense of urgency continues to grow as more and more people are affected and Ned finds himself at odds with not only the media and the government, but his own friends.

The structure of this play is more informational in the first act, and more monologue-heavy in the second, as there is a lot to say and many viewpoints to share, and it’s an excellent showcase for actors.  The characters here are fully realized–even those who oppose Ned’s views are given their say with depth and clarity, and Ned’s clear concern for his friends still shines through even in conflict.  Even with its richly drawn supporting characters, Ned is the focal point, so his casting is crucial, and Flack is ideal in the role. He does an excellent job of making Ned believable and sympathetic.  His frustration, zeal and rage are very real, and it’s easy to see how he can be at odds with his friends because of his methods, but his very real sense of mission and purpose is there, too, as is his heart and overwhelming need to do something about the growing crisis.  It’s a remarkable performance, and even more admirable in that Flack is on stage for the vast majority of the play, maintaining his intense energy throughout.  He is well-matched by White as the more mild-mannered, thoughful Felix, who helps to temper Ned’s rage and who finds himself fighting for his own life.  His scenes with Flack are powerful and poignant.  Byers is also outstanding as the tough, determined, but also compassionate and vulnerable Emma. Her slow, quiet breakdown while diagnosing Felix is intensely affecting, as is her appeal for research funding before  an NIH doctor (Stephen Peirick, who plays multiple roles).  Everyone here is excellent, from Pierre as the charismatic but closeted banker Brucee; Schall as the conflicted Mickey, who has a powerful venting monologue in the second act; Johnston as Ben, who struggles to love and fully accept his brother; and Watts as the genial Southerner Tommy, who often plays mediator between Ned, Mickey and Bruce. Peirick and Paul Cereghino also give fine performances in multiple roles as friends, government officials, doctors and hospital orderlies.

Visually, this production is striking in a minimalist fashion.  The scenic design by Sean Savoie is stark and simple, with a monochromatic backdrop and just a few required set pieces, aided by Savoie’s strong lighting and Patrick Burks’s memorable projections. The costumes by JC Krajicek are more timeless than specific, and the motorized wheelchair that Emma uses is a modern one, but that doesn’t really matter. The minimalistic approach with the emphasis on sharp lighting and visual contrast puts the focus on the acting and the story being told, which is the most important thing. Although the show doesn’t look as typically 80’s as it could, the projections and use of period music between scenes helps set the appropriate mood.  The simplicity of the set and staging also helps emphasize the intensity of the drama, and I find it very effective.

This show is going to be seen by people from various generations and walks of life–some more familiar with the early days of the AIDS epidemic than others, but the point is that it’s important to remember, and to know that there’s still work to be done. This issue is not primarily about numbers and political posturing–it’s about life and death, and most importantly, it’s about real people all around the world.   This play takes us back to where it all began in an intense, challenging, and strikingly memorable way.  It’s an important story well-told.

Lavonne Byers, Stephen Peirick Photo: Todd Studios HotCity Theatre

Lavonne Byers, Stephen Peirick
Photo: Todd Studios
HotCity Theatre

Read Full Post »