Charlene Baldridge | Theater Review
Fielding a splendid ensemble that includes two ion theatre newcomers, co-directors Glenn Paris and Claudio Raygoza opened a fine production of Larry Kramer’s 1985 tragedy, “The Normal Heart,” on Nov. 19.
The work was one of the first plays to address the AIDS crisis. The other was William Hoffman’s “As Is.”
Kramer’s play, which asks the question, “What kind of activist do you want to be in a time that calls for activism?” concerns an incendiary leader, Ned Weeks (the Kramer character, forcefully played by Raygoza), in the early years (1981-1984) of the AIDS crisis, when gay men were dying of a malady about which no one knew anything at all. Moreover, few cared; and local and national governmental representatives, including New York City Mayor Ed Koch, turned a deaf ear to pleas for support and funding for scientific investigation.
As Dr. Emma Brookner (excellent Kim Strassburger) says in Kramer’s play, “Who cares if a faggot dies?”
A prickly, outspoken writer, Ned has never had a partner, has criticized the gay lifestyle and continues to do so especially as it becomes apparent that the disease is likely caused by sexual activity.
Ned’s friends are dying. He (Kramer) founds (founded) an organization based on (known as) the Gay Men’s Health Crisis (GMHC) from which he is summarily ousted in one of the play’s most affecting scenes. The tears that well up in Raygoza’s eyes say it all. Meanwhile, he has fallen in love with Felix Turner (endearing and unaffected Alexander Guzman), a closeted New York Times lifestyles writer, who becomes (or tries to become) a leavening force in Ned’s life.
When asked to support GMHC, Ned’s heterosexual brother, an attorney who is building a $2 million home, reveals his true feelings/disapproval of Ned’s homosexuality. In his ion debut, Daren Scott beautifully portrays brother Ben. Felix’s scene with Ben, to whom he goes to make his will, is one of the best in the play and the brothers’ ultimate reconciliation scene, over Felix’s deathbed, is a humdinger.
Other ion actors play men whose real-life identities were revealed by Kramer at the time of the play’s 2011 Tony Award-winning revival. They are Stewart Calhoun as (the fictionally named, as all are) Tommy Boatwright, executive director of GMHC; Fred Hunting in two roles, as Craig Keebler and Hiram Keebler, a representative from the mayor’s office; Michael Lundy as Mickey Marcus; Joel Miller as Bruce Niles, president of GMHCH; and Glenn Paris in multiple roles.
At the time of the play’s 1985 premiere, New York Times critic Frank Rich said that Ned’s brother and Dr. Brookner were “too flatly written to emerge as more than thematic or narrative pawns,” and that the play was “a parochial legal brief designed to defend its protagonist against his political critics.”
The passage of time (more than 30 years), the acting of Raygoza, Scott, Strassburger, the six additional members of this tight ensemble, and Paris and Raygoza’s canny direction prove otherwise.
“The Normal Heart” is more than polemics about what is bygone.
“The Normal Heart” is well supported by the sleek physical production, the Raygoza-conceived scenic design, projections and music, plus Mary Summerday’s costumes, Kevin Kornburger’s lighting design, Kate Schott’s muralist designs and Melissa Hamilton’s properties.
— Charlene Baldridge has been writing about the arts since 1979. You can follow her blog at charlenecriticism.blogspot.com or reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org.