The Normal Heart
Human and heroic
|TimeLine Theatre presents|
|The Normal Heart|
Review by Lauren Whalen
“What’s AIDS and how do you die from it?” A Chicago Public School fourth-grader fired this question at me on a Tuesday morning a few years ago at my former job. I was moderating a screening of international short films for kids, one that followed an African brother and sister who’d lost their parents to the disease. “Well,” I said, “AIDS makes it hard for the body to fight diseases, and there isn’t a cure. Here in America we are lucky because there are medicines people with AIDS can take so they can stay healthy.” It was the simplest explanation I could think of on the spot. As I watched The Normal Heart, I thought of how far our country has come with HIV/AIDS treatment (medications and of persons affected) and how far we still have to go. TimeLine Theatre Company’s gorgeous production is moving and provocative, illustrating the horrors of disease and the complexities of activism. It rocked me to my very core.
New York City, 1981: Ned Weeks (David Cromer) sits in a doctor’s office as a friend is diagnosed with…there’s no name for it, but it’s a cancer that seems to target only gay men. Ned’s given a clean bill of health by the blunt Dr. Emma Brookner (Mary Beth Fisher), but he can’t escape the epidemic that’s tearing through gay communities around the country. A neurotic writer with past success but no present direction, Ned grows angry at the straight world’s apathy – why are doctors, politicians and journalists ignoring, sometimes outright denying, the problem as the body count grows each day? He decides to form an organization out of his living room, but growing tension with everyone from postal workers to the members themselves complicate the already major problems. And when Ned falls in love with fellow writer Felix (Patrick Andrews), he’s forced to confront his own desires and demons.
Larry Kramer wrote The Normal Heart in the early 1980’s, inspired by his own experiences with early AIDS activism. (Kramer founded the Gay Men’s Health Crisis and later, ACT UP.) Like Ned in the play, Kramer took an inflammatory, unpredictable approach to communication that often rubbed diplomatic activists the wrong way. Ned is not always a likable character: he challenges everyone, even those who genuinely want to help. He snaps at his loved ones, often denying or refusing affection in the name of being right.
As Bob Fosse did with the character Joe Gideon in All That Jazz, Kramer pulls no punches with his alter ego – and Cromer follows suit when playing the part. Ned’s anger is often misplaced, but underneath everything it’s completely and totally understandable. Gay men are dying everywhere, but the CDC won’t even give the disease a real name. When 7 people die in 3 months after taking Tylenol, “The New York Times” does daily stories, but the illness affecting gay men gets small and infrequent pieces, never on the front page. Ned’s friends and colleagues are afraid, and not just of the disease: some aren’t out at work, others don’t want to be told to abstain from casual sex, still others become tired of constantly fighting with authority. Kramer’s dialogue comes naturally to Cromer – even when the actor stumbles over words, the audience understands that Ned’s mouth hasn’t quite caught up with his brain.
Cromer headlines a stellar ensemble of Chicago’s finest actors, each devoted to their complex character. Marc Grapey makes a gripping emotional journey as Ned’s lawyer brother Ben, and Andrews brings his phenomenal energy to reporter Felix, Ned’s first lover and the only one who never fears him. Joel Gross is magnetic as Bruce, a bank vice president who loses several lovers to AIDS, delivering a monologue that had me sobbing. Fisher’s staunch, polio-afflicted physician gives a stirring speech in Act II, and the always-wonderful Alex Weisman is delightful as candid young Southerner Tommy Boatwright. Stephen Rader brings beautiful humor to public health employee and unsung hero Mickey Marcus.
Over the years, I’ve worked with organizations that help those with HIV/AIDS – everyone from gay men to pregnant women. Contrary to what many think, it’s still an epidemic and will be until there’s a cure. Children aren’t getting shots fired at their house for being HIV-positive, as Ryan White did, but the stigma, the challenges accessing treatment, and the losses haven’t gone away. The Normal Heart is set in the early 1980’s, but it’s far from dated. On the contrary, this play is essential. These characters could have been my friends, 30 years ago. As the lights came up and I wiped away the tears, I reflected on the core tenet of The Normal Heart: no one deserves to be robbed of a life.
The Normal Heart continues through December 22nd at Stage 773, 1225 W. Belmont (map), with performances Wednesdays and Thursdays at 7:30pm, Fridays 8pm, Saturdays at 4pm and 8pm, Sundays 2pm. Tickets are $37-$50, and are available by phone (773-327-5252) or online through Stage773.com (check for half-price tickets at Goldstar.com). More information at TimeLineTheatre.com. (Running time: 2 hours 40 minutes, includes an intermission)
David Cromer (Ned Weeks), Mary Beth Fisher (Dr. Emma Brookner), Patrick Andrews (Felix Turner), Marc Grapey (Ben Weeks), Stephen Cone (David, Hiram Keebler, Examining Doctor, Ensemble), Joel Gross (Bruce Niles), Nik Kourtis (Donner, Grady, Ensemble), Stephen Rader (Mickey Marcus), Alex Weisman (Tommy Boatwright), Drew Anderson, Eric Lindahl, Danica Monroe (understudies)
behind the scenes
Nick Bowling (director), Brian Sidney Bembridge (scenic and lighting design), Alex Wren Meadows (costume design), Andrew Hansen (sound design), Maren Robinson (dramaturgy), Linsey Page Morton (asst. director), Ana Espinosa-Simonson (stage manager), Carrie Taylor (production assistant), Austin Pettinger (associate costume designer), Joshua Kirkpatrick (asst. costume design), Mac Vaughey (master electrician), Michael Stanfill (projections design), Eva Breneman (dialect coach), Dina Spoerl (lobby display designer), Crosstown Scenic (set construction), Lara Goetsch (photos)