Review: The Normal Heart by Larry Kramer. Produced by Strawberry Theatre Workshop. Directed by Sheila Daniels. With Greg Lyle-Newton, Rob Burgess, Peter Crook Andrew Russell, Stephen Black, Brian Culbertson, Simon Hamlin, Joseph Cummings and Amy Thone. Now through February 15, 2014 at The Erickson Theatre.
The rage is palpable.
So is the grief. And the anger. And the passion. And all the emotion that existed 30+ years ago as AIDS ravaged a city wide community then a worldwide one and enveloped (and still envelopes) the lives of millions of people. It doesn’t matter that we now have “magic pills” that allow people with HIV to survive and thrive. The legacy of the original AIDS crisis casts shadows on every life it ever touched, from the early days of the epidemic right up to this very moment. Larry Kramer’s masterwork, his play THE NORMAL HEART was a rallying cry, a polemic, a call to arms, a historical document, a memoir, a slashing piece of political theater, a manifesto, an accusation, a cry for action, a cry for acceptance…a brutal/tender farewell to all those who were lost.
But, after the initial waves of terror that rolled through the 80s and into the mid 90s, the passion of the political cause began to change course and go in new directions. As science and medicine fought back against HIV/AIDS and the number of casualties drastically dropped, the world and even the communities most devastated began to lose interest in the fight or stories from it. The books, the plays, the movies that depicted those bitter, brutal times began to lose their luster in a new, young, digital world. “HIV/AIDS can’t hurt me now…why dwell on It? Move on!”
Some know better. Some know that those old stories need to be told. Some tales have lessons that are always important. THE NORMAL HEART isn’t just about AIDS or gay men, hundreds then thousands of them, dying of it in the early 80s in New York City. It’s about those gay men, and women, fighting for the right to exist…to be “normal” despite their sexuality. And, it’s about different ways to achieving those goals. At heart, one of the main threads of TNH is the battle between the “screamers” of the world, the Larry Kramers and those pissed off tranny queens and homeless kids at the Stonewall, and the calmer, rational, heads that work tirelessly behind the scenes to achieve goals. Both are necessary. Both have to work together to win the “game”…to fight the good fight. To get the Powers That Be to acknowledge us. To channel the rage.
Strawberry Theatre Workshop’s new production of THE NORMAL HEART isn’t afraid of the rage either but seems to embrace it. Larry Kramer wasn’t/isn’t afraid of it and the characters in this play might be terrified but they all ultimately realize that they are going to have to embrace the rage to accomplish survival. The director, Sheila Daniels and all the designers and the team behind this production are channeling that rage. And, so are the actors…definitely the older ones who probably remember those times but even the “kids”, the actors who might not have been born when these events took place. The sense of horror and terror and anger is palpable in every aspect of this superb production. But, that rage is never out of focus or out of control. Ms Daniels’ direction organically steers the characters through the plot and through their evolution as characters dealing with a horrific situation. There are many powerful, explosive moments in THE NORMAL HEART but they never feel phony or contrived. The assured direction and the passionate but very precise acting keep it all on course.
THE NORMAL HEART is an ensemble show that moves back and forth between the characters fairly evenly but at the center is Ned Weeks, the character not at all unabashedly meant to stand in for Larry Kramer himself. Mouthy, yet shy. Passionate, but lonely. Angry but also focused with his anger, it’s not an easy role to play. And, Weeks/Kramer isn’t always very likable. But, wisely, Greg Lyle-Newton was cast in the role and it’s a pleasure to see him because Mr. Lyle-Newton gives a beautifully passionate and fiery performance as Ned…he conveys all those contradictory but very realistic characteristics and grounds the character in a strong sense of believability and conviction that anchors all the other characters in the play. It’s a powerful and compelling performance and Mr. Lyle-Newton has set a high bar for every other leading performance in Seattle for the rest of the year.
But, he’s matched by a terrific ensemble. Peter Crook as the closeted Bruce who battles with Ned on the right course to take to fight the government’s indifference to the growing epidemic, while he watches his lovers die…another long absent actor Stephen Black as the eagerly cheerful Mickey who risks losing his government job for speaking out….Andrew Russell as Ned’s new lover, a writer for the NY Times who fought to win Ned’s love but then must face his own battle with the disease…Amy Thone, as in last year’s THE TRIAL, once again in a wheelchair but this time she’s the compassionate and blisteringly honest doctor, Emma who’s trying to sound the alarm about the dangers of AIDS and not afraid to ride over the oppostion….Rob Burgess as Ned’s straight brother who loves his brother but isn’t so sure if he can love his brother’s lifestyle…Brian Culbertson as the sassy Southern advocate Tommy….Simon Hamlin and Joseph Cummings in other smaller roles. Each one of these actors is superbly cast and all give strong, vibrant performance in probably the best and most cohesive acting ensemble I’ve seen in quite awhile. It’s a perfect team of great actors working in close harmony and everyone has a moment of truth on that stage where they have a chance to showcase their own individual talent while managing to not break the cohesiveness of the group.
All elements of this production are strong and all the design elements are simple. Reed Nakayama (Lights), Katharine Stromberger (Set), Greg Carter (Sound), Ron Erickson (Costumes) provide the usual high standard design work you’ve come to expect from Strawshop. The utter clean simplicity of it enhances the material…nothing distracts from the passion on the stage.
Needless to say, it is my opinion that THE NORMAL HEART is a must see production regardless if you’re gay or not gay. The story it tells is powerful and resounding and it can relate to anyone. But, be advised that the emotions expressed in the play are strong ones…hint: bring a hankie. There is death and fear and longing and rage and ultimately…determination to survive. It’s a major piece of American theater writing and this is a production worthy of that writing. Please go check it out.
PS I’m so thankful that the Strawshop is back on stage. You were missed last year. More, please.