By Darla Shelden
The Normal Heart is a complex, often heart wrenching play, taking place between 1981 and 1984 when AIDS was beginning to spread across America.
It focuses on Ned Weeks (Jonathan Beck Reed), a gay activist who recognizes the onset of the epidemic. He confronts the medical establishment, political leaders and the media about an unnamed “plague” that is killing members of the New York City gay community. Met with hostility and apathy, he even finds himself contending with his gay peers, who are reluctant to sacrifice their newly hard-won sexual freedom.
In a time when no one knew what Acquired Immune Deficiencies Syndrome (AIDS) was or how to treat it, certainly no one suspected that the virus would one day claim almost 35 million lives. This play speaks about the power an individual or a small group can have in society.
Although The Normal Heart is interspersed with some humorous lines delivered to relieve the plays seriousness, it is not for those looking for a lighthearted, feel good evening. R rated for adult situations and language, it deals directly with human relationships in the face of bewildering and deadly circumstances.
Ned’s character, according to CityRep artistic director Donald Jordon is a “thinly fictionalized’ account of playwright and activist Larry Kramer, who co-founded both the Gay Men’s Health Crisis (GMHC) and the more militant ACT UP (AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power).
Ned’s greatest ally is wheelchair-bound, Polio-stricken Dr. Emma Brookner (Stacey Logan), based on real life Dr. Linda Laubenstein, who early in the play proclaims “health is a political issue.” Seeing a continual stream of patients dying of this unnamed virus, Brookner’s prognosis is for the gay population to “stop having sex.’
An unpopular hero, Ned alienates friends, family and those in potential positions to help. He is ultimately kicked out of the organization he helped create for being too confrontational.
His bulldozing efforts do not prevent him from attracting the love of Felix Turner, a handsome fashion writer played by Matthew Alvin Brown, who soon contracts the HIV virus.
The handsome Drew Pollock plays Bruce Niles, a former Green Beret and corporate executive who isn’t really out of the closet yet who is elected President of GHMC.
Brian Hamilton portrays the enthusiastic Tommy Boatwright, an energetic young man who takes the role of peacemaker within the organization and furthers its development with ideas, like starting a phone hotline.
The excellent cast also includes Michael Jones portraying Ben Weeks, Ned’s brother and a wealthy lawyer. He is reluctant to accept his brother as an equal. Co-founder of the organization, Mickey Marcus (Michael Corolla) becomes overwhelmed and has an emotional breakdown causing him to lament, “I don’t know what to tell anybody, and everybody asks me.”
The Normal Heart ends with a hospital bedside wedding, in which Ned loses his lover Felix to the disease he has devoted his life to fighting.
Director Rene Moreno’s depiction of this 2011 Tony-winning Broadway production is an emotive play seeking to draw attention to a yet unsolved health crisis and to encourage a younger generation to become more informed about HIV/AIDS.
Posted in the theater lobby was a letter Kramer gave to theater-goers in 2011 explaining that the play’s message is as relevant as ever since so little money is put toward finding a cure for this disease, and pharmaceutical companies are doing only enough to keep HIV-positive people alive, but not to cure them.
CityRep’s production of The Normal Heart at the Freede Little Theater closes on November 18 in Oklahoma City, and I recommend you to see it. For more information visit www.cityrep.com, or www.okcciviccenter.org.