Review: The Normal Heart
There is a perfect marriage of solid writing and superb acting occurring at the Golden Theatre in the debut Broadway production of Larry Kramer’s The Normal Heart. Originally staged at the Public Theater in 1985, Kramer’s semi-autobiographical play about the outbreak of AIDS in America in the early 1980s is a breathtaking view into paranoia, prejudice, and ignorance about what would become one of the world’s most important health issues.
It’s July 1981 in New York and Ned Weeks and his fellow gay companions are experiencing something strange. Their friends are getting sick, and no one knows why. The opening scene in a hospital waiting room depicts Ned comforting a nervous friend, experiencing the foreboding symptoms. Ned assures him that there’s nothing to worry about, yet the doctor he sees says otherwise. However, not even she has an explanation for the illness that dozens of gay men in New York are contracting. Thus begins Kramer’s incredible depiction of the rise of medical paranoia and how it incited a social revolution combating one of the most notorious diseases of the modern age.
Deeply disturbed by the mysterious plight of his friends, Ned forms an activism group to combat the unknown illness. In this production, the team consists of the Joe Mantello (Ned), Patrick Breen (Mickey), Lee Pace (Bruce), and Jim Parsons (Tommy), all of whom give stunning performances. During their rocky quest to work with the government to fight the epidemic, this rag-tag group of underdogs go to war with politicians, family members, and each other. The latter conflict proves to be the most heartbreaking, as their crusade against an unknown enemy highlights their fears and doubts, pitting them against each other.
The element of the unknown is what Kramer excellently portrays in The Normal Heart. The terms AIDS and HIV are never mentioned in the play. The story occurs before the medical community knew what it was fighting, what to call it, or what caused it. Ellen Barkin, who plays Dr. Emma Brookner, beautifully portrays the confusion and frustration from the medical perspective. She tells her patients to abstain from sex, even from kissing, because she does not know what behavior puts them at risk. Barkin conveys disgust from her advice through her face. She has her patients’ best interests at heart, yet doesn’t want to limit their social freedom. Later, in a tremendous monologue filled with rage, Barken makes the stage quake in a furious denouncement of the government’s unwillingness to fund her medical research. It’s a shining moment in this Broadway season.
While being a deeply moving account of the terror the gay community in New York experienced during the outbreak of AIDS, The Normal Heart also stands as a fascinating story of what happens when medicine and government clash, and how a dangerous health issue can wreak havoc on society. Characters abstain from intimacy and fear socializing due to the disease’s unknown level of contagiousness. Kramer depicts a society in New York that is crumbling. The panic builds in The Normal Heart until it takes a terrifying chokehold of not only the characters, but the audience as well.
Every member of this ensemble delivers unique portrayals and moving performances, directed elegantly by Joel Grey and George C. Wolfe. This production of The Normal Heart is a gluttonous feast of delicious performances that the audience gets to savor for two hours. Yet one performance that deserves specific recognition is that of Mantello, whose Ned is the conscious core of the play. Known primarily for his directing of acclaimed shows like Wicked, Assassins, and Take Me Out, Mantello has not appeared on a Broadway stage as an actor since Angels In America in 1994. Well, Mantello is clearly dumping 17 years of pent-up actor energy out on the Golden’s stage. His Ned is a perfect portrayal of a realistc leader—he is strong in his convictions, yet has his flaws, like his ego, which puts him at odds with his teammates and their potential supporters. Mantello’s rage is raw and unbelievably natural, as is his pain. Mantello’s performance is so organic that Kramer’s words seem to be his own thoughts and natural actions. This is a combination of playwright and actor fusing together, and the result needs to be taken in and admired.
For some, The Normal Heart will remind of what it was like to live through this frightening time; for others, it will be a first-time look into a world where AIDS didn’t exist. To travel to such a foreign mindset sets a chill down the spine, which I only imagine will be similar years from now to look back and know a world untouched by the September 11 attacks. To look back and to see where we have come from is a powerful and cathartic action. For that reason, Kramer’s The Normal Heart is an important piece of theater, and a stunner in acting.
It’s impossible to leave this production without feeling some emotional connection to the fragility of relationships. The cold and stark white set gave me a feeling of emptiness only to be filled by the powerful interactions of the cast members as their lives unraveled and intertwined at once. Both Barkin and Mantello deliver such intense monologues in the second act, you can’t help but get chills. I almost wanted to look away from the stage because of how raw and intense their words, but reminded myself this was and is still the reality of being powerless over an illness. The Normal Heart was such a far cry from anything I have ever seen on Broadway, but an eye-opening welcome change to the usual light and upbeat musicals.