Strawberry Theatre Workshop deserves accolades for presenting Larry Kramer’s rage-fueled drama The Normal Heart. It’s an education for those who weren’t around for the beginning of the AIDS crisis, and a catharsis for those of us who did.
AIDS is not pretty; unlike now, it was a brutal disease. People, especially gays under 50, don’t remember the wasting, the horrific night sweats, the Karposi’s lesions, and the frightening awareness among the survivors that more and more of their friends were suffering and (almost literally) dropping dead.
This near-autobiographical play deals with a writer, Ned, who gradually realizes, to his horror, that something dreadful is happening to the gay men in New York in 1981. He ends up joining forces with his doctor, Emma (Amy Thone) who’s suddenly finding many of her patients also dying of a mysterious disease.
But both are thwarted, by fear, inaction, even internalized homophobia, and Ned’s rage rattles the cages of those around him.
Ned, of course, is based upon Larry Kramer, the author-turned-activist, and his actions resonate even today. He was kicked out of the social support organization he founded with some friends, and went on to found the patient advocacy group ACTUP. That action, and the success of the group, paved the way for many more patient-advocacy groups that followed. But this play only deals with the pre-ACT-UP events.
To make this play work, it needs strong actors, especially in the lead, and STW found them, with both Greg Lyle-Newton, as Ned, and Thone. Lyle-Newton needs to be fiery, volatile, passionate, and terrified, and sympathetic. By contrast, Thone is puzzled, frustrated, then furious. But her fury is more controlled, and balances the more roller-coaster emotions of Ned.
But their anger is real and the audience gets it, from scene one, when a man with Karposi’s lesions over his face walks out of the doctors office. Then, a handsome young man, recently diagnosed, has a seizure. The horror becomes visceral.
The underlying cause of the conflict is Emma and Ned’s need to do something–anything–to get help with this plague colliding with the inaction, based on fear: fear of outing, fear of losing new-found, hard-won sexual freedom, fear of the truth; and inaction from ignorance and homophobia. It’s also the basic conflict of any oppressed group, really: confrontation vs assimilation.
For Ned’s friends, including the ex-Marine-turned-bank-executive, Bruce Niles (played by Peter Crook), is too afraid of his position to be too ‘visible’, as is Ben (Rob Burgess), the health-policy wonk who works for the city health department. But Kramer focused his play on Emma and Ned, much to the detriment of the others. Bruce, especially, comes off as predictable and flat (except for his account of a horrific plane ride with his dying lover). The only one who escapes is Felix, Ned’s new-found boyfriend (maybe because of budget, the bulletin was too small to list all the characters, so I don’t know who played Felix). He moves easily through coy, attracted, flirtatious and flat-out sexual, as well as fearelessly standing up to Ned’s rages, and responding to his charms.
Director Sheila Daniels directs all of this with confidence. The play is talky, with a lot of intense emotions, but she never allows the actors to go over the top or to lose themselves. The audience follows all this smoothly and the story unfolds seamlessly.
The set is minimal and the stage small. During the course of the play, papers are thrown around and food and garbage is tossed about, piling up in the stage. The characters stumble their way through this garbage that the rest of the world dumped on them. It’s an interesting and thought-provoking visual metaphor.
The most powerful part of the play is an ongoing device used during the entre-actes: an actor appears, reads a list of names and a date: October 1982, for example. Next entre-acte, more names, another date. At first, the names are few. By the end of the play, multiple actors read over each other, trying to get out more and more names–all names of the skyrocketing AIDS vistims. It’s chilling, made even more so with scene designer Katherine Stromberger’s use of small-scale panels from the AIDS quilt, which descend to hang around the edge of the stage.
Many of the audience were in tears, and they left somberly: such is the power of this play which still resonates 29 years later. Praises, again, to Strawberry Theatre Worskhop for producing this classic, reminding us of our loss and to keep using our power.