It’s sometimes hard to sit through “an important play”—those pieces about Big Issues that ultimately leave you feeling educated but not entertained. The Normal Heart, Larry Kramer’s personal and political manifesto from the first days of the AIDS epidemic, is absolutely an important play. But in a Strawberry Theatre Workshop production directed by Sheila Daniels, it’s also a moving piece of theatre, a thoughtful balance of eye-opening macro and heart-twisting micro.
The Normal Heart chronicles the early years of the HIV/AIDS crisis in New York City, from 1981 to 1984. At the center of this firestorm is Ned Weeks (the perfectly cast Greg Lyle-Newton), a loudmouthed, gay Jewish writer who turns activist as he bears witness to the devastation of his community. As more and more of his friends fall ill, Ned joins forces with other members of the gay community to found a nonprofit care and action group. He does his best to rally support for the cause while finding love with his own partner, Felix (Andrew Russell), and raging against the institutions of media, medicine and government that seem determined to ignore him.
In the Strawshop production, produced in partnership with Lifelong AIDS Alliance, the performances are unfortunately uneven. Luckily, the great performances far outstrip the weak, and the stellar material buoys the whole endeavor.
The alley configuration of the stage sets audience members on both sides of the action, a convention that at first is mildly distracting but eventually makes you keenly aware of this play as a communal experience. Between every scene break, cast members read the names of early AIDS victims—the lists are longer and longer as the play progresses. Emotionally manipulative, perhaps, but at this theatre, emotions are on the table.
Ned is based very directly on Kramer himself, a founder of first Gay Men’s Health Crisis and next direct action group ACT Up—AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power. In his portrayal of Ned, Lyle-Newton deftly blends the abrasive and the endearing. He’s a passionate man, fierce and dedicated, and shouting into the wind (and at anyone who will listen) with all his might.
On opening night, Russell’s acting chops seemed rusty, but as he loosened up throughout the show his tender moments with Lyle-Newton became truly sweet. Peter Crook is sensational as closeted bank vice president Bruce Niles; so too Amy Thone as crusading doctor Emma Brookner, keeping her head above water as case after case of an unknown disease piles up on her hospital doorstep. Both actors have their show-stopping moments, though I readily admit that Crook’s second act monologue had me in free-flowing tears.
One of the things Kramer does remarkably well is see his own anger from all sides. Once it starts to look like the disease is spread through sexual contact, Ned starts lobbying the media to instruct gay men to stop having sex. An obvious solution, especially from a 2014 perspective. But Ned’s co-founder Mickey Marcus (a charming Stephen Black) pushes back, saying he has struggled for too long for his right to love and sleep with whomever he wants without shame—giving credence to the complicated emotional underpinnings of the entire piece, not just the political.
It’s hard for those of us a generation removed from this story to remember that there was a time when AIDS wasn’t AIDS. It makes The Normal Heart take on the feeling of a horror movie—an entire population is being stalked by an unknown assailant, insidious, unknowable, unnamed. Those of us too young to bear witness to the horrors of these years should count ourselves lucky, but we should do more than that. If The Normal Heart reminds us of anything, it’s to never, never stop shouting into the wind. Make them hear you.
Andrew Russell as Felix Turner, Greg Lyle-Newton as Ned Weeks, photo by Erik Stuhaug. The Normal Heart runs through Feb. 15 at Erickson Theatre Off Broadway.