by The Theatre Gay
What makes culture? What keeps the people together that comprise that culture? There are the obvious answers: skin color, food preference, clothing style. Can you create a culture? At the bottom of it, The Normal Heart, written by Larry Kramer, considers New York City’s fledgling gay culture during the 1980s, and how the HIV epidemic shaped it. The struggle for normalcy and acceptance in a culture of dying men are brought to the forefront. Arena Stage produces this 2011 Tony Award-winning production featuring some members from the original Broadway cast. At times successful, and at other times monotonous, The Normal Heart sheds light on the struggle of those that came before us to shape and define Gay Culture in the face of tragedy.
Normal Heart focuses on a group of gay male friends at the beginning of 1981. Suddenly every one of them knows someone who has fallen ill mysteriously. Gay men are dying and no one knows or seems to care why, except for Dr. Emma Brookner (Patricia Wettig) and Ned Weeks (Patrick Breen, who originally played Mickey Marcus in the first Broadway cycle). As years pass and more of Ned’s friends continue to die, Ned decides the only thing to do is to take action. When Ned’s lover Felix (Luke Macfarlane) contracts the disease, however, Ned’s passion to fight the ignorance about this disease grows, forcing Ned to make some tough decisions in his life.
This play outlines Larry Kramer’s experience during the HIV epidemic of the 1980s; in fact, Kramer is one of the first and most influential activists for Gay rights. The Normal Heart was originally produced in New York in 1985, in the middle of the HIV crisis, and was recently revived on Broadway in 2011. The production currently staged at Arena is a partial remount of that Broadway revival. Right from the first moment, I knew this was going to be a tough ride full of hospital rooms and harrowing details. There are some superb performances, specifically those of Patrick Breen and Michael Berresse (Mickey). Breen, like his character Ned Weeks, comes at the play hard and brings a new, relentless energy to each scene. He really shines, however, in the last few scenes of the play when we begin to see his character lose control. His relationship with Felix is sweet, endearing and a true joy to watch. For the most part, the ensemble works cohesively and their well-executed repartee brings some much-needed levity.
Despite some great performances, the humanity of these characters failed to shine through. The writing is weighed down by statistics and facts. In each scene, the characters discuss the devastation they have seen in the community. More often than not, though, this devastation was recounted by numbers instead of names. How many dead? How many dying? It seems the author would rather choose to focus on the entire city of New York instead of this small
group struggling to survive. This left little room for character interaction, or human connection which left some scenes wanting. The Normal Heart was written at a time when America still knew so little about the HIV/AIDS epidemic. I can see where a piece like this was appropriate, and even influential to awareness about this crisis when it was first performed in the 80s. In 2012, though, we have made such strides in the fight against HIV/AIDS that the play fails to
resonate, and instead comes off as dated.
This is not to say that you will not be touched by the performances on stage. At times, the production really hits a homerun out of the emotional ballpark where you can be reduced to a slobbering child in the Mead Center balcony. The Normal Heart will be playing at the Mead Center until July 29th, and I encourage you to go. Bring tissues. This stone-hearted gay needed them, cause I definitely cried like aforementioned infant. And if you don’t need the tissues, bring them for your audience mates; there was not a dry eye in the house when I saw it.