The Normal Heart has an engaging honesty

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By Larry Kramer. Directed by Tariq Leslie. An Ensemble Theatre Company production at the Jericho Arts Centre on Wednesday, July 30. Continues in rep until August 16

The Normal Heart has always been an odd vehicle but, 29 years after its premiere, there’s no denying its power.

In the story, we’re in New York in the early ’80s and the devastation of AIDS is just beginning. A seminal AIDS activist, playwright Larry Kramer cofounded the Gay Men’s Health Crisis (GMHC) and, frustrated with that organization’s caution, founded the AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power (ACT UP), a direct-action advocacy group.

In the largely autobiographical The Normal Heart, Kramer dramatizes the political and personal struggles of his GMHC days and presents himself in the form of Ned Weeks, the central character. Pre-AIDS, Kramer had already been critical—in his novel Faggots, for instance—of the rampaging sexual hedonism of emerging gay culture. And, in The Normal Heart, which takes place before routes of transmission and levels of risk were understood, Ned takes a strikingly antisexual line as well, arguing that the only way for gay men to survive is to stop having sex. Unfortunately, he was almost right.

It’s a bit disconcerting to watch a playwright present himself as a heroic figure: in The Normal Heart, Dr. Emma Brookner becomes Ned’s one-woman cheering section, telling him again and again that only loudmouths like him can save lives. But Kramer is on to his own foibles. His Ned is fearful of sex for neurotic as well as medical reasons, and Kramer gives a movingly pro-sex speech to Mickey Marcus, another of the activists.

The play is polemical, but Ned’s fury—with New York’s unhelpful mayor Ed Koch, with Ronald Regan’s criminally homophobic administration, and with The New York Times for its lack of coverage of the epidemic—evokes the desperation of the time. No gay man or ally who lived through that period will be able to watch the early scene in which a young man receives a death sentence from his doctor without feeling a painful stab of memory. Max Wallace does an achingly beautiful job as the young guy.

Even today, the complex conflagration of heroism and caution—some would say cowardice—that roiled within activist organizations is engaging. Ned’s antagonist is Bruce Niles, the conservative president of the GMHC. But, rather than denying Bruce’s humanity, Kramer gives him the script’s most moving monologue. In this production, Zac Scott, who plays Bruce, approaches that speech with heartbreaking simplicity. Even before he opens his mouth, his cheeks flush and you know something real is coming. Then, as Bruce details how his lover approached his death, on an airplane, in a pool of his own shit, the actor’s restraint unleashes, in the viewer, an unstoppable wave of grief.

Director Tariq Leslie establishes a welcome baseline of sincerity in this production. Playing a Southern homo named Tommy, Adam Beauchesne makes the character gently, authentically gay. And Daniel Meron brings charming straightforwardness to the role of Felix, Ned’s lover. Kazz Leskard plays Ned with quirky intelligence but, if you weren’t an adult at the time, I think it might be hard to grasp the deep interiority of Ned’s pain and fury.

Director Leslie has an unfortunate tendency to go for the large emotional moment: the script is operatic, but Leslie punctuates too many scenes with outbursts. Darren Hales’s sound design, which includes babbling radios and ringing telephones, gets in the way sometimes. And Leslie places too much of the action at too great a distance from the audience.

But, because of the fundamental honesty and intelligence of both the script and production, my heart was engaged and so was my head.

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