Larry Kramer’s The Normal Heart is a passion play. It depicts, in fictionalized form, Mr. Kramer’s plunge into a mad darkness as gay men in New York began to die in large numbers from what was at the time called a “gay cancer.” It would later become known as Acquired Immune Deficiency syndrome, or AIDS.
Mr. Kramer’s reaction was to become “mad as hell” and to fight every institution who stood in the way of figuring out what was killing his comrades. He was one of the founders of the Gay Men’s Health Crisis (GMHC), which is still in business as a major provider of AIDS services. He also helped to found the AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power (ACT-UP) to take the kind of political action that GMHC was unwilling to do.
Both groups acknowledge him as a founder, and both parted company with him.
And yet, the brilliance of The Normal Heart was not only that it did not make its protagonist Christ-like, but that, in fact, it portrayed not only his passion but how that passion took him off the rails.
It demands a central performance that finds essential truth, and ion’s Executive Artistic Director Claudio Raygoza delivers that performance.
Ned Weeks, the character name Mr. Kramer gave himself, is a relatively successful New York writer. He becomes outraged when there is no public attention being paid to a disease that strikes and kills young and middle-aged gay men. Weeks decides to rally other gay New Yorkers around the cause of “doing something” instead of sitting by idly. He quickly discovers that doing something is harder than it seems. Weeks is stonewalled by Felix Turner (Alexander Guzman), a New York Times reporter who covers fashion and style, when Weeks approaches him about soliciting coverage. Weeks’ own brother, Ben (Daren Scott) provides some initial legal advice but balks at pushing his firm to provide pro bono legal assistance or personally joining even an “honorary board” of supporters of GMHC. Weeks also clashes with the Bruce Niles (Joel Miller), the handsome former Army officer who has been chosen to lead the working board.
The only person who matches Weeks in passion is Dr. Emma Brookner (Kim Strassburger), a physician who sees the significance of what will amount to a pandemic and devotes her practice to treating patients, losing most of them to lack of concrete knowledge of the nature of what she was treating. Brookner advocates total abstinence from sexual contact as a means of preventing the spread of the disease. Weeks is skeptical of Brookner’s advice, but he eventually takes it up, only to have it rejected by the gay community at large.
There is one other person who supports Weeks, and that is Felix Turner, who, while still protective of his New York Times position, is taken by Weeks and becomes his lover. While Brookner’s character keeps Weeks from being the lone voice against the storm, Turner’s love humanizes Weeks and gives the play its title, part of a text taken from W. H. Auden’s poem, “September 21, 1939.”
As it has done on many occasions, ion’s acting ensemble focuses attention away from production values (well considered, though simple) and on building toward an emotional conclusion that takes away breath. Mr. Raygoza may be the star (along with co-director, and scenic, sound, and projections designer), but Ms. Strassburger has star quality written all over her performance whenever she appears. Mr. Guzman gives a brave performance that transforms him both physically and emotionally as it progresses. Mr. Scott navigates the difficult sibling relationship with finesse. Mr. Miller recovers from some initial stiffness to move toward displaying empathy along with his military-like resolve. In smaller roles, Stewart Calhoun livens the proceedings as a Southern flirt with a good deal of practical sense, Michael Lundy has one particularly impressive scene as a city worker who jeopardizes his job by offering volunteer services to AIDS patients. Fred Hunting and co-director Glenn Paris effectively play a variety of smaller roles.
Mr. Kramer is still with us, and when The Normal Heart was revived on Broadway in 2011, he could be observed picketing at the production to raise audience awareness that the AIDS pandemic was far from over. We can hope that the ion production will send sufficient emotional vibes into the universe to prompt similar behavior from its author before the run concludes on December 17. Passion plays may easily become dated, but they never really go out of style.