The Normal Heart’s fierce drama at Ion Theatre

Birth of a crisis

The Normal Heart unfolds like an eyewitness documentary, and it plays like a monster movie, only the beast is invisible and could swallow the world.
  • The Normal Heart unfolds like an eyewitness documentary, and it plays like a monster movie, only the beast is invisible and could swallow the world.

‘There’s not a good word to be said about anyone’s behavior in this whole mess.” The Normal Heart, Larry Kramer’s fierce drama about the early years of HIV/AIDS, pulls no punches. Practically everyone was an ostrich, refusing to believe the severity, unwilling to get involved. He makes the New York Times a pet target. The “paper of record” failed to cover the plague until hundreds died.

On the day its review of Normal Heart came out in 1985, the Times ran a disclaimer just below. “An article [about HIV] appeared on July 3, 1981, making the Times one of the alert the public.”

And it did. But as Normal Heartpoints out, the article ran on page 20, “while Legionaires’ Disease [and] Toxic Shock...hit the front page the minute they happened.”

The Normal Heart

Ion Theatre’s opening sequence shows the rapid spread of the virus. The lights come up on a bath house fogged with steam. It’s a still life of males with towels around their waists. The lights suddenly shift, and the men find themselves in a doctor’s waiting room, confused and afraid, as a friend learns why he has thick purple splotches all over his body.

That intro, one blink of the eye from order to chaos, isn’t in the script. It’s one of the many ways Ion Theatre eloquently serves the play. Another is the atonal, minimalist music of Gabriel Faure and Philip Glass and the slow, harmonic “tape loops” of Steve Reich underscoring the pain.

When the play begins, Ned Weeks already has a reputation for combativeness. A writer and an activist, he has only one approach: blast furnace. He questions everything, in particular the gay lifestyle he sees as based solely on sex. “It’s a way of connecting,” he says, “which becomes an addiction.” When he learns that an unknown virus could be transmitted sexually, Weeks crusades for the unthinkable: tell gays to stop having sex. “Soon we are going to be blamed for not doing anything to help ourselves. When are we going to admit we might be spreading this?”

The rest of the world acts “as if nothing is happening,” Weeks says. But “we’re living through war...and we’re all in the same country.”

The play’s set over 40 years ago. Since then it’s garnered praise and potshots at Kramer (i.e., Ned Weeks) for his chest-pounding. The Normal Heart is not very well written: the ending tugs shamelessly at the heart; Weeks is the only developed character. All true. But it brilliantly reflects the blind urgency of the time, the frustration, the denial, and the cold indifference from gays to the scientific community (“the CDC are filthy liars”) to President Reagan. Normal Heart unfolds like an eyewitness documentary, and it plays like a monster movie, only the beast is invisible and could swallow the world.

An element of narcissism runs throughout since Weeks is both the crusading hero and fingers-on-the-whiteboard anti-hero (i.e., he’s always extreme in every scene). In a truly fine effort, Claudio Raygoza gives him many more “sides.” Weeks rants and raves, at times with self-importance, but also resembles a character from Kafka, mired in absurdity, or cursed Cassandra, shouting “beware of Greeks bearing gifts” from the walls of Troy.

One of Raygoza’s most arresting actions: how do you convince people they’re damn bloody wrong? How do you incite someone to action? How to knock down barriers — fear, prejudice, ignorance, self-interest, hatred — on so many different fronts? Raygoza often conveys the edgy sense that Weeks is stuck in prison.

In the midst of rejection, even from the Gay Men’s Health Crisis, which Kramer founded, Weeks finds support from Dr. Emma Brookner, a physician and polio victim who uses a wheelchair. Like Dr. Linda Laubenstein (possibly Kramer’s model), Dr. Brookner has fought the outbreak from the start. On the surface, they’re an odd couple: she’s German, he’s a Jew who compares the plague to the Holocaust. Yet their bond raises awareness and saves lives.

The excellent Kim Strassburger plays Dr. Brookner, literally and figuratively, as a kind of Deep Throat. She gives Weeks medical information and moral support. Strassburger’s minimalist approach and stern compassion contrast beautifully with Weeks’s operatic excesses.

A tragedy within the tragedy runs through Normal Heart. Weeks falls in love with Felix Turner, gay fashion writer for the New York Times (and closeted journalistically). Amid numbers and statistics, Turner puts a human face on the stricken. He contacts the virus. In deeply moving ways Alexander Guzman’s Turner walks us step-by-step into hell.

Co-directed by Raygoza and Glenn Paris, Ion’s cast also offers felt performances by Daren Scott, as Weeks’s reluctant brother Ben (who’d much rather dream of a home in the country) and by Michael Lundy as Mickey Marcus, who at one point just goes off.

Few plays or musicals can re-create a point in time like The Normal Heart. Maybe its biggest strength: it depicts the birth of a crisis with such tenacity, you feel free to say, “that must be how it was.”

Ion Theatre Company BLKBOX Theatre

3704 Sixth Avenue, Hillcrest

The Normal Heart, by Larry Kramer

Directed by Glenn Paris and Claudio Raygoza; cast: Raygoza, Kim Strassburger, Stuart Calhoun, Alexander Guzman, Fred Hunting, Michael Lundy, Daren Scott, Joel Miller, Glenn Paris; scenic, projections, sound, Raygoza; costumes, Mary Summerday; lighting, Kevin Kornberger

Playing through December 17; Wednesday at 7 p.m., Thursday through Saturday at 8 p.m. Matinee Saturday at 4 p.m.

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