Heartache: 'The Normal Heart'

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

By Kate Wingfield
Published on June 21, 2012, 1:19am | Comments

The power of Larry Kramer's The Normal Heart lies not only in its incisive, witty and emotionally honest account of the birthing pains of New York City's first AIDS activists, but in its universal truths. For when Kramer's feisty (and largely autobiographical) protagonist Ned Weeks despairs, ''We're all going to go crazy, living this epidemic every minute, while the rest of the world goes on out there, all around us, as if nothing is happening, going on with their own lives and not knowing what it's like, what we're going through,'' he captures the cri de coeur of every perceived "other." Whether ravaged by disease, famine, drought or genocide, these are the "normal" hearts that ask how can the world watch us die and not help? The gay men here are all of us, for, depending on who's judging, we are all the "other" to someone.

Still, as close as Kramer is to his subject (he notes in a post-performance letter the members of the original 1985 cast and those on whom the characters are based who have died of AIDS) he never loses a crystalline narrative vision. Despite the enormity of the emotions, fact and chronology remain in perfect balance with a compellingly nuanced portrait of Ned and his fellow activists as they try, against the odds, to navigate the early horrors of a disease as selective as it was deadly. And although there is a certain expository artifice – Ned, for example, likes to describe his psychology under the pretense of discussing past therapy – it serves with urgent purpose Kramer's potent snapshot of the culture, psychology and angst of his community.

''The Normal Heart'' at Arena Stage

''The Normal Heart'' at Arena Stage

(Photo by Scott Suchman)

And despite its importance as witness to the struggle, this play is no fossilized account. With an uncompromising ear for dialogue, devotion to emotional truth, ugly or otherwise, and a blissfully irreverent sense of humor, Kramer engages as much as he lays bare. Thus, though the speeches, diatribes and expositions may fly, Kramer earns the right to every last one with his equally uncompromising portrayal of the men caught in this terrible, confusing time. So if Ned may be self-righteous to the point of insufferable (his friends are the first to tell him), and if the names of the dead are projected upon the walls ominously and exponentially, it is Ned's plaintive begging of his dying lover Felix to ''Please don't leave me,'' that equally pummels the heart.

In a pitch-perfect performance, Patrick Breen feels so consummately Ned that if it turned out he was also Kramer, one would hardly bat an eye. Capturing the driven, adversarial nature of this difficult man, but also his intelligence and neediness, Breen gives us the kind of character that lives, rants and loves in our minds long after the lights go down. It is a superb portrayal.

Memorable for his admirable restraint, John Procaccino as Ben Weeks, Ned's straight brother, gives beautifully drawn presence to a man who learned long ago to keep his doubts and turmoil concealed beneath his well-cut suits. Though Kramer rather neglects Ben's story and what it might reveal, Procaccino skillfully delivers the implied complexities of his character, especially when Ned finally calls him on the carpet.

As Bruce Niles, the leading activist whose diplomatic style argues with Ned's aggression, Nick Mennell cuts a dashing figure and engages convincingly with Ned when they inevitably clash. Still, though he voices the rationale of those who would tread softly and the pragmatics of those who stayed closeted, Kramer's omission of most of Bruce's backstory makes him harder to grasp, despite Mennell's undeniable charisma.

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.''