Heartache: 'The Normal Heart'

With a devotion to emotional truth, Larry Kramer engages as much as he lays bare in his AIDS-crisis masterpiece

In the role of Felix Turner, Ned’s unlikely lover (a noun Kramer uses rather like a truncheon), Luke MacFarlane brings warmth and believability in his attraction to the curmudgeonly Ned, even if his scenes of decline feel slightly overplayed.

Rounding out the band of activists, Christopher J. Hanke gives flair, presence and dry comic timing to Tommy Boatwright, while Michael Berresse as Mickey Marcus brings a pleasingly snappy tone to the bustle of the activist office and later potently captures the character’s unraveling.

As the characters move from concern to bewilderment to crisis, there is much to transition, and director George C. Wolfe, utterly simpatico with Kramer, crafts a thoughtful, clever pacing especially as the play morphs into spaces of reflection and realism. The sparse but effective sets by David Rockwell, lighting design by David Weiner and music and sound design by David Van Tieghem evoke a time and place as well as the enduring urgency of Kramer’s message.

THE NORMAL HEART
starstarstarstarstar
To July 29
Arena Stage
Kreeger Theater
1101 6th St. SW
$40 to $94
202-547-1122
arenastage.org

In the role of Dr. Emma Brookner, a doctor who recognizes early the pattern and devastation of the disease, Patricia Wettig has the challenge of delivering an awful lot of Kramer’s expository, including a rousing if patently theatrical speech to the medical establishment/grant-makers. This kind of duty is not easy at the best of times and though Wettig gives her chair-bound doctor a certain gravitas and, when called for, moments of keen emotion, she feels rather more mechanical than human. And yet, even in her stiffness, she serves Kramer’s purpose: No matter the messenger, the death just keeps on coming.

And so it does today. The resonance of this amazing play lies not just in the brilliance with which it captures a community in early crisis but in its continued relevance writ large and small. It is about the despair of profound injustice as AIDS continues in epidemic proportions and the devastating intimacies of untimely loss of any kind. It speaks to everyone. In the words of Herman Melville, ”We cannot live only for ourselves. A thousand fibers connect us with our fellow man.”

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