Larry Kramer’s The Normal Heart debuted in 1985 at the Public Theatre. It just made its Broadway debut this past Wednesday night. It would be nice to say that the show has become dated–it takes place between July 1981 and May 1984. Unfortunately there are too many things that are in the same state 25 years later.
The show chronicles the beginning of the AIDS epidemic. As it opens Dr. Emma Brookner knows of just 41 cases of the plague that had yet to be named (today there are over 75 million cases). Two of Ned Weeks’ friends have just been diagnosed and he’s come to see the doctor to find out what’s going on. After their discussion, Weeks works to mobilize his friends, and anyone else who will listen, to spread the word about what the disease is, how the transmission can be slowed and getting help to those who are infected. Weeks’ loud, in your face tactics aren’t taken well by the people he’s working with or those he’s trying to get help from. Yet it is his message that needs to be heard to save lifes.
The play is autobiographical and describes what Kramer went through in the early days of the disease and his co-founding of the Gay Men’s Health Crisis.
The play is an amazing work showing how scared people were of the disease and how closeted many gay people were in the early- and mid-80s. As it’s put in the show, the inaction early on essentially murdered many gay men.
The cast assembled for this production is outstanding. Joe Mantello returns to acting for the first time since his Tony nominated role in 1993’s Angels in America where he originated the role of Louis Ironson. His Ned Weeks is full of anger, passion and insecurity. He anchors the show and is riveting. Mantello, who now is mostly known as a director (including winning Tonys for Assassins and Take Me Out), needs to get on stage more often as he is sublime.
Ellen Barkin makes her Broadway debut as Dr. Emma Brookner. Her scene in Act II where she unleashes her rage at the examining doctor who has come to tell her she won’t be getting any research money was breathtaking. She received extended applause for her speech; so long in fact that the actors had to hold before starting the next scene. I expect to see her on stage accepting a Tony in June for this role.
Other standouts in the ensemble are John Benjamin Hickey as New York Times reporter Felix Turner, who also becomes Ned’s lover. Hickey’s performance in Act II brought me to tears more than once. Jim Parsons from CBS’ The Big Bang Theory is funny and heartfelt as “Southern bitch” Tommy Boatwright. Lee Pace, most recently seen on Pushing Daises, plays Bruce Niles, the closeted banker and president of the upstart activist group. Pace is outstanding, particularly in the intense arguments he has with Mantello’s character.
The video below gives just a small glimpse into the power of this production.
The Normal Heart is playing a limited engagement through July 10. I expect it will rack up a number of Tony nominations on Tuesday and many awards in June. If you’re in New York while the show is running do not miss this amazing piece of theatre.