Larry Kramer’s heart-wrenching Tony Award-winning play, The Normal Heart, offered one of the most powerful theatergoing experiences I’ve had when I witnessed the Broadway revival production last year. DC area audiences are currently fortunate enough to experience (or re-experience) that spectacular production as Arena Stage produces the play under a special arrangement with Broadway producer Daryl Roth. The Arena Stage mounting of the play at the Mead Center for American Theatre reunites members of the Broadway creative team and some of the Broadway cast. This flawless production of a very strong script with a powerful message is a must-see for DC audiences- not only for regular theatregoers, but also broader audiences concerned with social change, the state of human and civil rights in this country, and health issues plaguing the United States and the rest of the world.
The Normal Heart chronicles the emergence of the AIDS epidemic in New York City in the early 1980s. Ned Weeks, an energized self-proclaimed loud-mouth in the gay community, is concerned with the number of his friends that are dying as a result of the mysterious illness and just as concerned with the lack of media and government initiative to address the epidemic. Kindled by pride, anger, and a desire to make the world a better place, he sets out to ensure the situation is addressed by creating an organization to make the gay community more aware of the outbreak, help those affected by the disease, and see that the government- which spent endless months ignoring it- takes steps to address it. He faces multiple professional and personal obstacles as he pursues his end goals.
The ensemble cast of actors charged with bringing this powerful story to life is uniformly strong. Each scene is acted out with purpose and commitment and each emotional punch (and there are many) packs a wallop. Several members of the cast deserve specific mention.
Patrick Breen proves he is an acting force to be reckoned with as he takes on the lead role of Ned Weeks. He is suitably bombastic and brash throughout much of the performance, but the final quiet moments, in which he begins to come to terms about the very real way the epidemic affects his own life (as a result of the death of his lover, Felix Turner), offer some of the finer acting moments I’ve seen in years. His chemistry with Luke MacFarlane (Felix) is undeniable and his ability to show emotional range is astounding.
MacFarlane is Breen’s equal on stage. As a New York Times fashion reporter in search for a meaningful relationship, Felix is, perhaps, one of the few that understands all of Ned’s quirks. Throughout the course of the show, MacFarlane, too, demonstrates a very real connection to Breen’s Ned. His final scenes, in which he is coming to terms with his fate, are among the most powerful in the play. In lesser hands, they could come off as campy, but MacFarlane brings a sense of humanity to those moments.
This is an overwhelming production that needs to be seen to be believed.
Michael Berresse (more well-known for his work in musical theatre), as a gay health department worker who struggles to balance his desire for job security and the pursuit of political and social justice for an often ignored community, offers an even-keeled performance. His emotional rage, however, comes to a climax with a breakdown in Act II. With that monologue, in which he expresses suicidal thoughts, Berresse more than proves he is capable of taking on a non-musical dramatic role. Patricia Wettig has the challenge of portraying Dr. Emma Brookner, the only female in the play. As a wheelchair user (as a result of polio) on the front lines of treating the gay men who’ve acquired the disease, she is desperate for government support and local community action to stop the spread of the disease. Wettig does well with portraying Brookner’s anger and empathy particularly in Act II. Her monologue about government funding for health issues in the gay community is delivered with purpose and commitment. Christopher J Hanke exudes Southern charm as Tommy Boatwright. When the other characters are yelling and screaming, Hanke, as Tommy, provides a calm and stabilizing presence.
The minimal production values in this George C. Wolfe-directed production (with restaging by Leah C. Gardiner, a creative team newcomer), serve the piece well. David Rockwell’s set offers a white backdrop which can serve as an apartment or many kinds of offices- from hospital to government to law. The use of projections (Batwin & Robin) brings a sense of time and place to the action without distracting from the beautiful script and incredible acting. The lighting (David Weiner) and sound design (David Van Tieghem, who is also responsible for original music) also does not overwhelm the already intense atmosphere surrounding the play. Martin Pakledinaz’s costumes also offer insight into each character’s profession and personality and further ground time and place.
This is an overwhelming production that needs to be seen to be believed. I commend Arena Stage for taking a chance on producing this play as even though the 1980s are a decade gone by, the messages still pertain to our world today as the AIDS epidemic continues to rage on. The Normal Heart offers an introspective and powerful means of reminding contemporary audiences of how the epidemic started and what still needs to be done to address it. When combined with high-quality acting and direction, the end result is the production being far superior to anything else being offered by the DC theatre community right now.
Running time: 2 hours and 30 minutes including an intermission.
The Normal Heart runs through July 29, 2012 at Arena Stage at the Mead Center for American Theatre, 1101 6th Street, SW in Washington, DC. For tickets, call the box office at 202-488-3300 or purchase them online.