The Normal Heart

By Larry Kramer
Directed by Joel Grey & George C. Wolfe
Featuring Ellen Barkin, John Benjamin Hickey, Joe Mantello
Golden Theatre, 252 West 45th Street
production web site:  http://www.thenormalheartbroadway.com/

April 27, 2011 — ongoing

Reviewed by Martha Wade Steketee
May 14, 2011

(L-R) Ellen Barkin, John Benjamin Hickey and Joe Mantello. Image by Sara Krulwich, The New York Times.

The Normal Heart is a passion play of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries.  This is sometimes stultifying theatre as theatre — two hours of being inveighed against / exhorted to / yelled at (say when we the audience represent the medical research establishment or the political establishment ignoring the growing evidence supporting the fact of the AIDS epidemic in its early years of devastation and study) can cripple you as an audience member.  This is not to say that this piece isn’t essential theatre to tell a history to those who don’t know it (young men and women sobbing and gasping around me at my matinée testify to the importance of that element of this story telling) and to present a communal experience of remembrance to those who lived through it (several middle-aged men used up packets of tissues around me too).  I do not dismiss their experience — in fact I applaud it.  But let us agree that this play is written as a two-hour cry of the heart, cry of the soul, cry of the wronged to be heard by the larger community and the research and service resources who can help serve those in need — not as a play of character revelation or nuance or complexity.  The cries of individual characters grow deeper and louder and more frustrated — yes, with reason.

This is a presentation of slice of history, a play of acknowledging the men and women who had died in the devastating wake of the plague in its early years 1981-1984.  And while there is far to go in terms of funding and services in this country and in others around the world, the shouts have different targets now in 2011.  I found myself wanting more dramaturgical detail related to the early 1980s to illustrate to those hearing this story for the first time of the fight to be heard against the Reagan Administration and others in power who denied the existence of the virus and its effects, and refused to speak publicly about the scourge for years and years.  Some of us were paying attention during those years and can bring that 30-year-old knowledge to the theatre with us.  Others weren’t yet born and need to have it illustrated dramatically.  And even for those of us who lived those years as politically aware adults, this is not ‘ripped from the headlines’ theatre of today — new and perhaps more devastating versions of this story could tell the story of generations of suffering, perhaps, and new examples of prejudice and bigotry and remembrances of those lost.

But enough of what this 25-year-old play is not, in its current production on the stage of the Golden Theatre.  Much of what it is is grand.  The lighting (David Weiner) and set design (David Rockwell) that feature typeface as walls that are finally shrouded in black and replaced by names of the fallen — reporters’ words become names of the dead.  As with the Viet Nam Memorial, the power of names is awe-inspiring, and they remain projected on the walls of the playing area after the play is over and the audience is filing out.  And some of the performances are awe-inspiring as well: Ellen Barkin as Dr. Emma Brookner, wheelchairs her way around the stage, her own kind of German-born outsider treating patients, fighting her colleagues to get them to recognize the plague she sees, and ultimately delivers a screed against the medical funders of the early 1980s that at my performance (and from all media reports, at all performances) receives an extended ovation.  Joe Mantello as Ned Weeks is our writer-observer-bellicose advocate for the cause, who starts the play at a roiling boil and operates for the balance of the play with his character’s temperament boiling over.  Ned’s partner who we watch sicken and pass away during the course of the play, Felix (John Benjamin Hickey) is gentle, cajoling, balances Ned’s flash points and brings him his first significant love relationship.

Directors Joel Grey and George C. Wolfe have pared the stage (save the brilliant newspaper type column relief walls — white on white) to its bare minimum to place all the importance on the words and on the message.  Characters are arrayed in various arrangements as still life — sometimes those who are meant to have passed away, sometimes others waiting for their upcoming scenes, wait at the edges of the playing area while their colleagues, the other characters, perform their scenes.  We observe the players being observed.  We are all part of this passion play.  I mean that observation to be inclusive.  I also mean that as a way to capture the time and the particular political, social, medical, cultural historical moments that are captured in this piece of theatre.  I am glad to have seen this finally on stage after reading it on the page many times over the years.  I believe this play will always serve as a kind of call to arms that will morph at some time into a reminder, a history lesson of a far distant time of arrogant ignorance by those in power, and the courage of the people who fought for their voices to be heard.  We are somewhere in between those points in time at the present day.

© Martha Wade Steketee (May 15, 2011)

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