Searing revival of 'The Normal Heart' opens at Arena Stage

Plays do not come much more polemical than "The Normal Heart," Larry Kramer's impassioned indictment of government, media, doctors -- the whole world, really -- for ignoring a deadly disease that started claiming the lives of gay men in in the early 1980s.

But plays do not come much more shattering, either.

That there is still much to rage against is driven home both by the revival of "The Normal Heart" that opened Thursday at Arena Stage and the "Please Know" leaflet from Kramer being distributed outside the theater after performances -- "Please know that after all this time the amount of money being spent to find a cure is still miniscule ... that there most medications for HIV/AIDS are inhumanely expensive ... that pharmaceutical companies are among the most evil and greed nightmares ever loosed on humankind ..."


Kramer, clearly, has lost none of the fire that consumed him when the virus began its hideous march. It does not say much for the rest of us that, just as he seemed a lone voice crying out in a frightening wilderness, he still stands out from the alternately complacent and timid crowd, challenging, shaming, pleading.

When Kramer set about ...


channeling his anger and frustration into a dramatic vehicle, little was known about the mysterious virus, let alone how to treat it. The action in "The Normal Heart" starts with the summer of July 1981, when the number of known fatalities was 41. Today, 35 million human beings have been taken.

It is impossible not to feel that appalling weight of hindsight when revisiting the play now. You want to scream right along the the character based on Kramer, scream at the jerky assistant in the New York mayor's office, at the closeted gays who just won't be pushed into public action, at the NIH official who turns down a request for research funds.

Kramer captured with remarkable skill the complex issues that swirled around the gradual dawning of a major crisis. What he also did, it turns out, is create a play that can hold up nearly three decades after its Off Broadway premiere in 1985, hold up theatrically and emotionally. It's still a punch to the stomach. It's still a major tear-inducer.

But, in addition to the sobs heard in the audience on opening night, there were a lot of laughs, too -- nervous ones, no doubt, in many cases, but also plenty of genuine ones. Although the work is heavy with expository material in the first act and heated, preachy arguments later on, there is wit to go with the wisdom, camp to go with consternation.

The power of this revival -- based on last year's acclaimed Broadway premiere directed by George C. Wolfe (Leah C. Gardiner is the re-staging director for the Arena production) -- comes from a cast that makes lines loaded with facts and messages sound as natural as the conversational dialogue.

The characters in this tragedy, based on real people, are fleshed out superbly, starting with Patrick Breen as the thinly disguised Kramer, here called Ned Weeks.

Breen, who had a smaller role in the Broadway staging, steps into the lead with flair. Ned is like a gay Woody Allen one minute -- overly chatty, awkward and self-effacing when facing a guy who's interested in him -- and a royal pain the next, on a tear about the unhelpful mayor or the lack of interest from the New York Times. Breen puts that hot-cold, sweet-sour mix across with considerable nuance.

Luke McFarlane shines as Felix, the Times reporter who falls for Ned and is gradually pulled into the struggle, only to face his own personal battle with the creeping threat.

The rest of the ensemble proves equally appealing, with especially telling work from John Procaccino as Ned's conflicted brother Ben; Christopher J. Hanke as Tommy, a young Southern charmer who quickly gets mobilized into Ned's avenging force; and Patricia Wettig as Dr. Brookner, who tries to cope with an emergency she cannot understand and a medical establishment she cannot change.


David Rockwell's stark set neatly serves the fast-paced action and, with the astute use of projections, helps to drive home the mounting toll of the plague.

This welcome production is not an easy sit -- "The Normal Heart" beats at an extraordinarily intense rate -- but it's an essential one.

The production runs through July 29.