LARRY KRAMER’S HEART WRENCHER; THE LESSONS OF THE NORMAL HEART NEED TO BE TAUGHT AGAIN AND AGAIN
Theatre Rhinoceros ends their 40th stunning season of Pride theatre with the first local Premiere production of Larry Kramer’s THE NORMAL HEART. The Rhino’s Theatre's moving production of Kramer's historic play is now on stage for a short run at the Gateway Theatre through November 25th. Directed by and featuring Rhino’s Artistic Director in the lead role, John Fisher has assembled an impressive cast to bring back this dark moment of HIV history. Gilbert T Johnson’s set design includes simple walls on wheels washed in white covered with facts and numbers about the history of AIDS that serves as a Greek chorus, explaining and accusing as the deaths of gay men mount. The production allows audience members to write the names of the friends they have lost on the blank white walls, only adding to the chorus of memories this brings back to many Bay Area men and families.
First produced in 1985 by Joseph Papp during the height of the HIV/AIDS crisis as the epidemic was still being ignored by mainstream media, the medical establishment and the White House. Kramer’s dark, sometimes funny, sad, angry script "THE NORMAL HEART" became the Public Theater's longest-running hit. Kramer’s play opens the sores and atmosphere of those early AIDS years when hidden headlines announced of a strange cancer affecting gay men. All that was known was that healthy young men were developing the terrible symptoms of Kaposi’s sarcoma and suffering lonely, tragic deaths while Washington remained indifferent.
Director Fisher says “ The Normal Heart needs both much introduction and, for many of us none. I choose then to let the play speak for itself.” The story details the personal lives of a group of men and one woman, a doctor dealing with the crisis at a time when many homosexuals were afraid to come forward, for fear of losing their jobs, families and everything they cared about. Kramer's alter ego in THE NORMAL HEART is Ned Weeks played intensely by Fisher, a sometime screenwriter turned unlikely revolutionary. While Ned’s rage about the establishment for not caring "if a faggot dies," he also roars at the apathetic gay community, offending his long time friends and enemies. Fisher brings Ned’s madness to perfection with chilling emotion.
Ned visits the equally angry and forceful Dr. Brookner played by a terrific no-nonsense Letitia Duarte, to find out why so many of his friends are getting sick and dying. "I hear you've got a big mouth," says Emma, who is in a wheelchair crippled by a vaccine bout with polio. She easily moves around crushing toes and trying to inspire Ned to tell his boys to stop having sex. Ned asks the Doctor "Is big mouth a symptom?" "No," she replies "it is a cure!" Emma is based on the late Dr. Linda Laubenstein of New York University Medical Center who doesn't know how the virus is spread. "You want me to tell every gay man in New York to stop having sex?" he says. "Who said anything about just New York?" the doc shoots back.
Ned gets that silence and ignorance are the enemy, so he visits Felix a New York Times reporter, played by the compelling Jeremy Cole. The two men fall in love; it’s Ned’s first happy and committed relationship. Felix finds a dreaded purple lesion on his foot and at the same time, Ned is painfully dealing with another intense relationship with his brother, Ben. His brother, a successful attorney, played by the splendid Robert Zelenka, who loves Ned but cannot accept him as an equal and is more interested in the $2 million mansion he’s planning rather than help Ned.
The feature cast is all terrific, each actor has their moment in Kramer’s script. The likeable Morgan Lange is the stylish southern boy Tommy Boatwright who is the only male character who was written to show off the dandy boy. The marvelous Tim Garcia plays the NYC Dept of Health worker, Mickey. He is also part of the gay rights activist community since the Stonewall era and Garcia does a fiery monologue about his fear of the City firing him for being an activist. The exceptional Benoit Monin gives a provocative performance as Bruce Niles, a former Green Beret and current Wall Street investor. Bruce is a closeted gay man and a co-founder of Ned’s Gay Health organization. Monin brings the drama to the story as he fights with Ned almost from their first notion of their new gay group.
The flawless Nick Moore and Jeremy Alan Howard play the many other parts including Moore’s exceptional performance as Greg Donner the first character to die in Act 1. The standout Howard is very annoyingly perfect as the Mayor's assistant and later as a doctor who challenges Dr Brookner's findings. Durate as the doctor brings a provocative take on the horror of deaths she has to deal with, but Jeremy Cole’s swan song death is show stopping.
Director Fisher keeps the two and half hour drama moving and he adds his trademark natural sound design that includes this company performing all the sounds and transition music acapella style and it is always impressive. Yet the two stage managers, Isaac Traister and Danielle Williams, keep the moveable set on pace while most of the actors do the costume changes on stage in the wingless backstage in full view of the weekend audience. Sean Keehan’s light design is moody and dark at times, but the main apartment and office is highlighted by the white walls full of text and information about the Virus. David F. Draper’s costumes are subtle 80’s pastels and scarfs for some of the men, and belted pants and button shirts that are true to 80’s New York.
THE NORMAL HEART is important American Theatre, and still today a very powerful play and message. Almost every character has a solo at some point, a statement of principle, an expression of grief for a lost friend or fear for himself, a commentary on the public response, from New York mayor Ed Koch’s distance of community leaders to President Reagan’s refusal to speak the word “AIDS” for seven years, even as thousands died. The tears I heard from several members in the audience is testament to the sincerity of director John Fisher and his company, and to the enduring relevance of the topic healing gentleness and horror. Bravo.
Theatre Rhinoceros presents…
THE NORMAL HEART
by Larry Kramer
Directed by John Fisher
Must Close November 25, 2017
The Gateway Theatre
(Formerly The Eureka Theatre)
215 Jackson St. at Battery St., SF, CA 94111
Two hours and 30 minutes one intermission
Tickets Info: therhino.org
Photo's by David Wilson
Cast: Jeremy Cole, Letitia Duarte, John Fisher, Tim Garcia, Jeremy Alan Howard, Morgan Lange, Benoit Monin, Nick Moore, and Robert Zelenka.