As a gay man who grew up in the 1980s, there are very few theatrical works, heck, cultural pieces as a whole, that are as important and as resonant to me as Larry Kramer’s 1985 call to arms to address the AIDs crisis, The Normal Heart. I ran to see the 2011 Broadway revival that won Tonys for best revival of a play and best featured actress for a surprisingly feisty, emotionally-sucker-punching performance from Ellen Barkin. And I cried copious tears, not just because of the tragic history of suffering and death among my people, but also at the perception and treatment of gays at that time, vestiges of which continue to this day (and despite the fact in the previous week my home state of Illinois became the 15th state in the union to recognize same-sex marriages, there are still 35 other states that don’t). Last weekend, I saw Timeline Theater’s equally blistering, heartbreaking production of The Normal Heart, and I cried so much more, and so much longer. Definitely because of the same reasons, but also because the intimacy of the staging not hindered by a Broadway house’s size and proscenium, and the visceral acting of Chicago actors not accessorized by movie star glow, more powerfully convey the multitude of emotions-grief, injustice, helplessness, loss- that Kramer intricately explores.
The biggest criticism that some people have lobbed at The Normal Heart is that it’s dated – nearly 30 years later, AIDS is not the gay plague, or the definitive death sentence that it was in the 1980s. There is still no cure, but because of advances in medicine and science, people afflicted with the disease can live productive lives. The stigma, at least in the big cities, has receded from view, if not totally obliterated. There are other health issues that have occupied the public policy discussion space. But I don’t think that Kramer’s writing is a museum artifact: it is still very vital despite the fact that the play is about and is a product of a specific period in time. It traffics on themes that resonate in our contemporary times – the issue of same-sex marriage, the continued existence of the gay closet, the politicization of healthcare (uhmmm, Obamacare, anyone?). There are still 34 million people with the disease around the world. More personally for me, I think it’s very important for the current crop of gays, several generations removed from the events depicted in the play, to understand our history and to learn from it, despite how clichéd that might sound, especially in the prevalent thinking among large swaths of the community that barebacking and unbridled promiscuity is fashionable, is pleasurable, is ok. It’s not ok.
If I have one criticism about the play it is that Kramer, in his anger and frustration at the spread of AIDS and the inattention and inaction on it by those in positions of power, wrote a lot of speeches instead of having the anger and frustration come out organically from emotional relationships among the characters. And a lot of these speeches are delivered by the Kramer stand-in, Ned Weeks, similarly a volatile, outspoken, temperamental writer who plays both fair and foul to get attention for the disease. On Broadway, Ned was played with unrestrained anger and explosiveness by actor-director Joe Mantello, who notably appeared in the original production of Angels in America, another important work for gay men of my generation. In Mantello’s portrayal, you can see why then New York City-mayor Ed Koch would both run away from and marginalize a group with the unpleasant yet passionate Ned as the leader. In Timeline’s production, another actor-director, Chicago’s pride David Cromer, takes on Ned. In the performance I went to I felt Cromer came off initially tentative, and the slow build towards ferociousness is a little jarring. Kramer’s speeches are angry, unfiltered, provocative ones (especially the parallelism that Ned draws with the Holocaust) and Cromer’s more cerebral, less jumpy take on the role gives them less edge. He does explode majestically and truthfully towards the end of the show, especially as he deals with the wasting-away of his partner Felix (an unsurprisingly heart-wrenching Patrick Andrews), but it takes a while for him to get there.
The ensemble cast is perfect: Andrews is impressive as Felix who provides the unwavering emotional support that Ned needs; Mary Beth Fisher is both imperious and compassionate as Dr. Brookner (the role Barkin won her Tony for), the only New York City doctor at that time who was treating AIDS patients and researching the disease, and the show-stopping speech that Kramer gives the character continues to rivet in Fisher’s highly-capable hands ; Stephen Rader is magnificent, seething, activist, yet cautious as the city healthcare worker who stands to lose his job by participating in Ned’s group. The supremely talented playwright-actor Stephen Cone gives a terrific, memorable cameo as Mayor Koch’s closeted aide who represents the worst of that time’s villains: a gay man with power who will not act to help his community in order not to jeopardize his status and position. Nick Bowling unfussily directs this ensemble (aided immensely by an impressively flexible stage design by Brian Sydney Bembridge) and lets them bring Kramer’s potent, still-relevant words to vivid life.
The Normal Heart is at Stage 773, 1225 W. Belmont Ave., until December 22. It is powerfully emotional night of theater.
Tags: TimeLine Theatre Company