The Normal Heart
nytheatre.com review by Julie Congress
May 1, 2011
You need to see this show. The Normal Heart is a rare theatrical gift, a show that thoroughly engages both intellectually and emotionally. The play begins in July of 1981, when writer Ned Weeks (based on playwright Larry Kramer) learns of the 41st case of a mystery illness that appears to be targeting homosexual males. 30 years, and 75 million HIV/AIDS infections later, this powerful play proves insightful, inciting, and certainly pertinent.
Ned, who personally knows several of the 41 infected, seeks more information from Dr. Emma Brookner, only to discover that there really is none. It is terrifying to look back at the history of this disease, to think that so little was none about it, as seen in this interaction between Emma and one of her patient’s (note that the patient’s name has been removed so as not to give anything away):
Patient: No more making love?
Patient: Some gay doctors are saying it’s okay if you use rubbers.
Emma: I know they are.
Patient: Can we kiss?
Emma: I don’t know.
Ned has the foresight to see that the gay community is on the cusp of a plague—a plague with no name, no known cause, and no treatment. Frustrated by the lack of action being taken, Ned begins, with friends Bruce, Mickey, and Tommy, a grass roots organization in an attempt to get the attention of the Mayor’s Office, The New York Times, and the public. As the death count rises, Bruce, Mickey, and Tommy become more focused on providing services to the infected. Meanwhile, Ned focuses more on the source of the problem—the promiscuity spurred on by the sexual revolution and, in many ways, inherent to gay identity at the time. Ned's battle is hard, often futile; his style is argumentative and attacking, and he is forever fighting on all fronts.
The cast is stellar. Joe Mantello is fiery and stubborn as the rabble-rousing Ned Weeks. On stage the entire time, Mantello’s performance is both natural and compelling. John Benjamin Hickey shows amazing range as Ned’s partner Felix. Jim Parsons shines as Tommy, Ellen Barkin’s Emma rails at the world with intense energy, Patrick Breen is likeable (and a little downtrodden) as Mickey, Mark Harelik is sturdy and thoroughly believable as Ned's brother Ben, and Lee Pace commands the stage as Bruce.
This is a true ensemble piece—as the play develops, under Joel Grey and George C. Wolfe's expert direction, characters stand at the perimeter of the stage, watching it unfold as voiceless witnesses. Scenic designer David Rockwell creates a living monument on the stage with three white walls engraved with a 1981-1984 timeline of the disease (and its media coverage) that can only be read when specifically illuminated by David Weiner's lighting. Perhaps most powerful of all are Linda Batwin and Robin Silvestri's projections, simply listing the names of those claimed by the epidemic and very much reminiscent of the Vietnam Memorial.
Towards the end, Felix tells his lover Ned: “Don’t lose that anger.” I cannot think of a more important message for Americans in 2011. In many ways we have: we are complacent, distracted, passive. We are annoyed with issues, but don’t do anything about them (giving money or voting does not really constitute taking action). Anger, in this sense, is a catalyst for change. We need to get angry! We need to fight! Fight against inequality, fight against an inefficient health care system, fight against the media, fight against disease, fight against death—fight, like Ned Weeks, to make the world a better place.