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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

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