Some pieces of drama are timeless. Classic works like Long Day’s Journey into Night and tragedies like Macbeth or Hamlet remain poignant decades after their debuts. The Normal Heart, now on Broadway in a searing revival directed by Joel Grey and George C. Wolfe, has firmly established itself in the category of timeless dramatic works. More than 25 years after its premiere at the Public Theater, Larry Kramer’s portrayal of AIDS and the people who suffer from it is just as, if not more, relevant, touching and heartbreaking as it was when it was first performed.
Inspired by Kramer’s early years as an AIDS activist, The Normal Heart bluntly depicts the first awareness of the AIDS epidemic and the world’s refusal to acknowledge it. All the people who turned their backs on the illness are mentioned, including Mayor Edward J. Koch, The New York Times, the American medical establishment and the majority of gay men in New York. But The Normal Heart is much more than a political commentary. It is a brave and intimate look at the way illness affects people personally. And in that achievement, this play is nothing short of devastating.
The protagonist of The Normal Heart is Ned Weeks, played in an incredibly intense performance by Joe Mantello. An acclaimed director acting on Broadway for the first time since Angels in America, Mantello gives Ned an authentic urgency, making him both believable and sympathetic despite his caustic and off-putting characteristics.
The Normal Heart follows Ned as he takes it upon himself to warn the gay community of New York about the AIDS epidemic as well as falling in love for the first time with Felix Turner (an excellent John Benjamin Hickey), a closeted style writer for the New York Times. Calm and measured, Felix is the opposite of Ned in many ways. But the romance between the two men is completely authentic, believable and sweet.
Fierce, angry and accusatory, Ned ostracizes many of his friends in his crusade to promote AIDS awareness. These friends join Mantello onstage in a superb ensemble, including Patrick Breen as a health care professional and Lee Pace, as an attractive, closeted ex-Marine who emerges as Ned’s adversary in their political efforts. Jim Parson steals almost every scene he is in as the “Southern Bitch” Tommy, and Mark Harelik plays Ben, Ned’s brother whose relationship with Ned suffers as a result of his activism.
The sole woman in the cast is Ellen Barkin, in a superb Broadway debut as Emma Brookner, a parapalegic doctor who supports Ned’s campaign to increase awareness about AIDS. Her second-act monologue delivered to a panel of government specialists who denied her funds to research the disease is nothing short of stunning, and it inspires the type of sustained audience applause that typically only goes to lengthy dance solos.
The Normal Heart very similar to its hero – fierce, angry, accusatory and potentially alienating. But this production, thanks to the acting by everyone onstage, renders every character as fully formed, sympathetic and human. The play taps beneath the political surface and bravely addresses the havoc that illness and ambition can wreck on personal lives and relationships. As Ned attempts to blaze the trail for future activists, he loses many of his friends and is ostracized from the organization that he started in his living room. His lengthy monologues, delivered at increasingly higher volume, are exhausting to listen to. They are also authentic, real and true.
Staged on David Rockwell’s set, which is a homage to the original white box, the walls are covered with projections of names of AIDs victims. The list gets longer and longer as the play continues and the deaths are represented onstage as well.
The timelessness of The Normal Heart is both beautiful and terrifying. “Health is a political issue,” one character says passionately during the show. It’s chilling to think of how relevant that statement is currently, especially after the battle over funding for Planned Parenthood and the continued debates about abortion and reproductive health, as well as the epic health care reform debate of the past few years. And while there is only one line in the play about gay marriage, the heightened debate over that issue (hopefully) remains in the forefront of everyone’s minds.
First performed at the Public Theater, The Normal Heart became the theater’s longest running hit play. It’s easy to see why, and one hopes this Broadway production’s run extends so more people can witness this vitally important work of drama and history.