In 1985, Larry Kramer’s new drama “The Normal Heart” had a blistering, topical urgency. It pulled no punches about its subject: the lethal spread of AIDS and (in Kramer’s view) the complacency of the gay community and failure of the media and political establishment to recognize and deal with the crisis.
An angry jeremiad penned by a frustrated activist, “The Normal Heart” was very much of its time. But does it still have bite and resonance today, in an era of life-extending AIDS treatments? And (relatively) less stigma around the disease and homosexuality?
The answer is yes, if gauged by the fervent, fluent Strawberry Theatre Workshop staging at the Erickson Theatre Off Broadway through Feb. 15.
Under the fleet, fine-tuned direction of Sheila Daniels, on a simply dressed stage flanked by audience on two sides, “The Normal Heart” (which had a hit 2011 Broadway revival) revs up fast. It can still sound like a pamphlet, or a debate in the letters section of The New York Times (a newspaper Kramer accuses of homophobia and indifference).
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But the passionate, periodic preachiness connects to a central thesis also dear to Ibsen: the importance of taking action against a social ill, even in the face of public and institutional ignorance and apathy.
Other reasons “The Normal Heart” still pulses with aliveness? Fiercely intelligent dialogue and compelling characters, as portrayed by a strong Seattle cast.
At the eye of the storm Kramer whips up is his own surrogate, gay New York writer Ned Weeks. Portrayed by Greg Lyle-Newton as a complicated neurotic who’s an insufferable jerk one moment and a loving charmer the next, Ned watches his friends sicken and die from a mystery ailment.
Urged on by a dedicated physician (a sternly heroic Amy Thone), Ned spends several years trying to publicize the escalating epidemic, serve those suffering from it and raise money to research and fight it. He joins with friend Bruce (a closeted gay banker, played with superb reserve and hidden wells of feeling by Peter Crook) to form an early AIDS organization (based on one Kramer co-founded, the Gay Men’s Health Crisis).
With evidence gathering that the disease may be transmitted sexually, Ned angers his peers by aggressively urging gay men to change their sexual habits — and end the bathhouse promiscuity he, too, had indulged in. At the same time, he falls for New York Times style-pages writer Felix (affectingly played by Andrew Russell), the well-adjusted WASP opposite of the neurotic, self-flagellating (and Jewish) Ned.
Their true-love romance is a bit schmaltzy, but also essential. It reveals a side of Ned other than the impolitic ball of fury who insults a key aide of the New York City mayor (clearly Ed Koch) and alienates others who could help his cause. He also demands total acceptance from his brother Ben (Rob Burgess)
and total tactical agreement from fellow activists (Crook, Brian Culbertson and Stephen Black).
The egotism woven into Kramer’s polemic is sometimes off the charts. But it is balanced by moving sympathy for other characters, and the sneaky, skilled acting of Lyle-Newton, who without softening Ned’s ire also honors the depth of his concern and commitment.
Was “The Normal Heart” as effective in fighting the AIDS epidemic as the AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power (ACT UP) — the more militant advocacy group Kramer helped form in 1987?
Probably not. But his play persists as a stirring, often scintillating tale applicable to other plagues and prejudices. And the fact that it’s taken nearly 30 years to produce a movie of “The Normal Heart” (it debuts this year on HBO) is a reminder that the fight, on the AIDS front, is still not over.
Misha Berson: firstname.lastname@example.org