The writing, the acting, the production of The Normal Heart at Stray Dog Theatre thrill with a passionate outcry from the earliest days of the AIDS crisis that still resonates today.
In a performance with the greater depth and intensity that I have seen in his latest work, Stephen Peirick plays Ned Weeks, a journalist in New York City in the early 1980s and someone who is very much like the playwright, Larry Kramer.
Weeks is gay, and more and more of his gay friends and acquaintances are succumbing to a mysterious new disease that is being called the gay cancer.
But even as the number of deaths multiplies, little attention is being paid by the medical community, the government, or the media to this epidemic.
Hoping to write about it, Weeks interviews Dr. Emma Brookner, who has been treating many of those afflicted. The cause of the disease has not yet been identified, nor has the method by which it spreads, but Brookner suspects that sexual contact, newly increased in the gay community post-Stonewall, may have something to do with its rapid spread.
Further aroused, Weeks pulls together an advocacy group of gay men.
But in the early ’80s, being gay was not even as socially accepted as it is now. Some of the men in this group are closeted. Even those who are more open but who still have their own private concerns and fears want to use a cautious, diplomatic style in approaching the government for funding and the media for attention.
But Weeks has no patience with such timid behavior. His anger at the indifference to this plague only grows, and it increases still more when his lover, a New York Times “Style” reporter, Felix Turner, develops the tell-tale lesions of the disease.
When, after months of trying, his group finally gets a meeting with an assistant to New York’s “bachelor” mayor Ed Koch, Weeks’ fiery outburst alienates not only the mayoral assistant but also the other members of his organization.
When The Normal Heart first appeared off-Broadway in 1985, with the tirades not only of Weeks but of Dr. Brookner when a government panel rejects her grant application, many saw it as primarily a polemic about the AIDS crisis.
Seen today, it is still that.
But it is much more.
Kramer gives fair measure to the positions of those who saw Weeks’s – and Kramer’s – activities as too extreme. And he includes tender scenes not only with these men but with Weeks’ wealthy, influential lawyer brother, who has never quite accepted his brother’s homosexuality, as David Wassilak reveals in the restrained way that his Ben Weeks greets his brother, displaying the blueprints for the new house he is building to avoid Ned’s concerns.
Because Dr. Brookner’s childhood polio increases her sympathy with the victims of this new epidemic but also confines her to a wheelchair, Sarajane Alverson in no way lets that restriction lessen her fiery playing of the role, including her passionate tirade when government funding for her further research is denied.
Jeffrey M. Wright handles judiciously the close but soon strained relations between his character, Bruce Niles, a prominent but closeted corporate executive who has been chosen president of the organization Weeks has founded, and Weeks. His approach to their work is cautious, polite, and deferential, in contrast to Weeks’s confrontational calls for direct action. Though they share a tender scene of mourning and loss, when Weeks’s vehemence in the meeting with a representative of the mayor explodes that relationship, Niles must tell Weeks that the organization’s board, fearing further outbreaks, has expelled him from the group he had founded.
Joey Saunders plays with moving restraint Weeks’s lover, who tries practically from his deathbed to reconcile Weeks and his brother.
Michael Hodges, Jonathan Hey, Jeremy Goldmeier, and Stephen Henley each make significant contributions to the play’s picture of this crowded and perilous time.
Director Gary F. Bell wisely found no need to melodramatically heighten this intense script. In his inspired design for the set, Justin Been made its walls from stacked file boxes of medical records, each with a name on it. Tyler Duenow designed the lights and director Bell the costumes.
The Normal Heart may be an angry polemic, but at Stray Dog Theatre it is also very good theatre.
Photo by John Lamb
From left to right: Jonathan Hey, Jeffery M. Wright, Stephen Peirick, and Jeremy Goldmeier.