Smile Politely

“Who cares if a faggot dies?”

The title of this review is a line from an early scene in Larry Kramer’s award winning play, The Normal Heart. In the scene, the harried and caring Doctor Emma Brookner is about to embark on a life changing journey with Kramer’s fictional persona, Ned Weeks, a journalist investigating a baffling series of gay men’s illnesses and subsequent deaths from what we now know to be A.I.D.S.  Brookner is a New York physician treating young gay men with a confounding array of symptoms. When Weeks comes to interview her for a Times article, she insists on examining him since he’s a member of the risk group, and acknowledges his reputed “big mouth.”

“Is that a symptom?” Weeks sarcastically asks. “No, a cure,” is the doctor’s reply. For the next two and a half hours, we witness the evolution of a civil rights activist and a true horror tale of a group of young and talented gay men and their allies under siege from a disease with no name, no treatment, no hope, and no cure. In 1981–84, this diagnosis was a death sentence for anyone unlucky enough to contract it, and the debate over what’s to be done about it is the focus of this stellar Krannert production. It is a heartbreaking and breathtaking evening of theatre, and if you allow squeamishness over the dark subject matter to dissuade you from attending, you will be missing one of the most powerful theatrical productions I’ve seen in this town in recent memory. 

Originally produced by Joseph Papp and directed by Michael Lindsay-Hogg, the play opened Off-Broadway at The Public Theatre on April 21, 1985, and ran for 294 performances. The original cast included Brad Davis (who later succumbed from the disease) as Ned and D.W. Moffett as Felix, with David Allen Brooks as Bruce Niles and Concetta Tomei as Dr Emma Brookner (based on Linda Laubenstein, M.D.). Joel Grey replaced Davis later in the run. The play received its European première in 1986 at London’s Royal Court Theatre, where it was directed by David Hayman and produced by Bruce Hyman. In that production, Ned Weeks was initially played by Martin Sheen, who received an Olivier Award nomination as Best Actor. When it transferred to the Albery Theatre (now the Noel Coward Theatre), Ned Weeks was initially played by Amadeus’, Tom Hulce, and then John Shea. For that production, Paul Jesson, who played Felix, won the Laurence Olivier Award for Best Actor in a Supporting Role. In subsequent productions of the play, Ned Weeks was portrayed by Richard Dreyfuss in Los Angeles, and Raul Espraza, in a 2004 Off-Broadway revival at the Public.

The Broadway premiere of The Normal Heart began on April 19, 2011, for a limited twelve-week engagement at the Golden Theatre. This production used elements employed in a staged reading, directed by Joel Grey, held in October 2010. The cast featured Joe Mantello as Ned, Ellen Barkin (in her Broadway debut) as Dr. Brookner, John Benjamin Hickey as Felix, Pushing Daisy’s Lee Pace as Bruce Niles, and The Big Bang Theories’ Jim Parsons as Tommy Boatwright (both Pace and Parsons made Broadway debuts). This was Joel Grey’s Broadway directing debut. Due in part to the popularity of this production, Ryan Murphy, the force behind Nip/Tuck, Glee, American Horror Story, and The New Normal, has optioned the film rights and is producing the film version, rumored to star Mark Ruffalo, Julia Roberts, Alec Baldwin, Taylor Kitsch, Matt Bomer, and Jim Parsons.

The Krannert production, under the skillful direction of Henson Keys (pictured, left), is a rare and exquisite jewel of a show. The three-quarter staging in The Studio Theatre is effective and true to the writer’s vision. The set design by Regina Garcia is utilitarian and attractive and emits the proper ambience of the period, without becoming kitschy or distractingly retro, and the costume design by Jess Gersz and lighting design by Joseph A. Burke provide the right sense of somber gravitas to the proceedings. The production values overcome the confined and peer-conscious space of The Studio, and it is easy to lose yourself in the play’s well-paced action and heart-rending emotional appeal. (A word to the wise: Bring tissues!)

The acting ensemble is uniformly stellar and works as a well-tuned unit throughout the evening, led by the powerful and courageous performance of Neal Moeller as Weeks. Moeller owns Kramer’s words and politics, warts and all. Kramer (pictured, right) is an acquired taste for some, both overly blunt and relentlessly aggressive. Moeller portrays him as a man possessed by his concern for the community he loves, and his vein efforts to warn the burgeoning gay scene to take precautions show the heart and fear of this very human character. Though proven right with time, Weeks is seen as a threat to the community’s hard-won sexual liberation, and Moeller is heartbreaking as his fellow warriors in this battle abandon his passion for a more palatable and politic message. Moeller shows Weeks’ humanity through his flirtation and subsequent relationship with the doomed Felix Turner, played with humor and pathos by the dashing Nick Narcisi. The pair has a wonderful chemistry together, and they are both sexy and charming, making their eventual fates almost too painful to watch.

Thom Miller, Neal Moeller, and Nick Narcisi

The remaining cast is equally strong, with lovely performances by Sarah Ruggles, Robert G. Anderson, Timo Aker, Donavan Diaz, and Thom Miller as the attractive figurehead of the organization he and Weeks co-found. Miller’s second-act revelation about the loss of his boyfriend is raw and powerful, and this moment, like all others in this fine production, is so subtly and realistically drawn that one forgets these are actors performing a play. The line between fantasy and reality waivers, and we watch voyeuristically as these lovely young men fall victim to an illness that their government, communities, and even families fail to protect them from. The loss of youthful potential is a haunting component of this crisis, and the well-cast Brian Krause gives us a sense of the horrors awaiting the group as the first diagnosed victim of the disease, and the sweet youthful appeal of him and fellow initial victim, Brian Zielnicki add the needed poignancy to the play’s frustration with this tragedy. The proceedings are not all doom and gloom, and there is a nice sprinkling of needed humor throughout the piece.

A.I.D.S., homophobia, and the pursuit of gay rights are tricky topics to handle in our current culture, polarized as they are between those fighting for equality and those advocating for a return to the closet and a renewed invisibility of this community. With gay marriage in a realistic debate in our nation’s courts and campaigns like the “It Gets Better” movement a prominent component of our current culture, it is easy to forget that we, as a nation, allowed tens of thousands to become ill and die from a preventable disease because we judged their sexuality as excessive and their lives as expendable. The play’s repeated references to the Holocaust are not an accident, and our nation will be judged for its lack of compassion during this time by future generations. This production of The Normal Heart shows the human cost of our actions, and forces us to confront the question posed in the title of this review. The compassionate and humane answer is: we all should, and that is why I strongly recommend you attend this powerful piece of theatre.

The Normal Heart continues through April 7 at Krannert Center for the Performing Arts.

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