When the crisis began, then President Ronald Reagan didn't publicly say the word AIDS until seven years into his term. The plague was allowed to ravage thousands before it began to be treated as the killer it is. The Normal Heart documents Mr. Kramer’s cry of outrage and was first presented at the Public Theater in 1985. It is the semi-autobiographical story of Mr. Kramer, his fight and the founding of the Gay Men's Health Crisis.
Mr. Kramer's alter-ego is Ned Weeks, astonishingly played by Joe Mantello, better known to today's audiences as the director of the smash mega-hit Wicked. Mr Mantello gives one of the season's best performances (for which he has received a Tony Award nomination.) Ned's brother is a high-profile lawyer Ben, starchly played by Mark Harelik, who Ned convinces to take on his new fledgling organization as a pro-bono client.
This entire cast is sublime as they bring this crisis to horrifying life. The talented Ellen Barkin, in her Broadway debut, is Dr. Emma Brookner. Her character is based on Dr. Linda Laubenstein, a pioneer in the research and treatment of HIV/AIDS who fought passionately for funding for AIDS research. Barkin gives an intense and passionate performance as the wheelchair-bound doctor who treated gay men with compassion when most folks wouldn't even go near them. I don’t recall ever seeing an actor receive such sustained applause after a single monologue as Ms. Barkin did the night I saw The Normal Heart. Barkin pours her guts out at a panel hearing in Washington when she learns she has lost her funding. Her visceral response in this scene is raw and intense.
John Benjamin Hickey is New York Times style editor Felix Turner who Ned tries to convince to write about what's happening in the gay community. They wind up lovers with Felix ultimately succumbing to the disease. Hickey’s performance is marvelous as he goes from healthy, energetic and handsome to weak and sitting on the floor in self-pity. Rounding out the other colorful and tragic figures in Mr. Kramer's world are Luke MacFarlane ("Brothers and Sisters"), Jim Parsons ("Big Bang Theory") and Lee Pace ("Pushing Daisies").
Co-director’s Joel Grey and George C. Wolfe have stayed true to the simplicity of the original production. Scenes wax and wane with energy and emotion like a finely crafted piece of music with all the dynamics that make it interesting. The set by David Rockwell is a simple box set with quotes on the wall that Kramer also details in his notes at the beginning of the script. These include references to the total number of cases of AIDS, the amounts spent on research by public officials like Mayor Koch and Diane Feinstein, and a quote from the “American Jewry During the Holocaust” report which was prepared for the American Jewish Commission on the Holocaust. Kramer draws a parallel between the extermination of Jews in 1940s Germany to the crises that public officials in this country willingly let play out in the gay community in the 1980s.
The Normal Heart can be very funny at times and will make you laugh even while it moves you to tears. As the names of thousands of dead AIDS patients light up the walls of the set and the interior of the theatre, you could feel the emotion in the theatre as sniffles emanated from throughout the audience. Do not miss this play, it only runs through July 10, 2011.
As we left the theatre, there stood Larry Kramer passing out a letter that he wrote. It’s almost a post-script to the play. It's his way of saying, this really happened, these people are gone now, and this is still a plague. He is fervid in his devotion to this cause. I have attached a copy of Mr. Kramer’s letter to this review. Read it and you will understand what I mean.