The Normal Heart
Review by Neal Weaver
Through March 19
At intermission, one woman audience member declared that Larry Kramer’s autobiographical play is terribly dated — an assertion I feel obliged to refute. While it’s true that the issues it deals with are no longer burning with the white heat they once generated, the piece itself is now old enough to qualify as a historical artifact. The fact that it has been revived over and over — in New York, Los Angeles, on television, and around the world — testifies to its continuing relevance. Now, when we are once again coping with an insensitive Republican administration which privileges doctrinaire political values above compassion and humanity, the play seems doubly relevant.
Director Marilyn McIntyre has mounted a production in which the performances are all excellent, and the direction of the individual scenes is sensitive and sharp, but the production scheme is awkward and time consuming. The use of rolling screens to frame the action is potentially effective, but an over-literal design approach keeps the actors busy moving furniture and props at the expense of speed and continuity.
As Ned Weeks, the fictional alter-ego of playwright Kramer, Parker Mills doesn’t attempt to play the hero: he’s an ordinary guy, incensed to near madness by the stupidity and callousness of the world about the growing AIDS crisis. (Watching the play, I was struck by an unexpected parallel: like John Adams in the Continental Congress, Weeks/Kramer is the exasperating gadfly and polemicist who is despised by all because he refuses to shut up. But Adams did not suffer the additional handicap of being gay in a homophobic society.) Ned desperately wants love, but is fearful of it, and resists it when it arrives. When the handsome New York Times writer Felix (Peter Schiavelli) penetrates his protective shell, he is both overjoyed and terrified. And when his brother Ben (a subtle and lovely performance by Dan Via) refuses to acknowledge that his life is as valid as Ben’s own, he is incensed.
Carol Weyers scores eloquently as the crusading doctor, Emma Brookner, who must preside over the deaths of countless young men, with no sympathy or assistance from the medical community. Mickey Marcus makes a touching figure of gay activist Ray Barnhart, who undergoes a shattering melt-down when his activism threatens his livelihood. Bruce Niles provides a sympathetic portrait of the deeply closeted banker and the president of the organization Weeks has created to lobby for AIDS research and funding. Jeffrey Masters, Eric Bunton and Cameron Cooperthwaite provide admirable support.
I suspect that this production offers a more complete and unedited version of the text than any of the three productions I have seen. Certainly I heard things that I had never heard before. The edited versions make the action more visceral, but the complete text is more intellectually challenging, with its fuller treatment of the facts.
It’s a long evening, but despite the fact that a couple of scenes go on past the point of diminishing returns, it never feels long. I found it engrossing throughout.
The Chromolume Theatre at the Attic, 5429 W. Washington Boulevard, Los Angeles. Fri.-Sat., 8 p.m.; Sun., 7 p.m. (800) 838-3006 or www.brownpapertickets.com/event/2816561. Running time: Three hours with one 15 minute intermission.