It is difficult to leave Toronto’s Buddies in Bad Time Theatre where Larry Kramer’s The Normal Heart opened last night without feeling moved. Moved to cry perhaps, as I was, moved to anger, perhaps, or moved to disagree with the playwright’s take on sexual politics, as I know others did. It is, after all, a show which engages like few others I have seen in my play-going career. That this one has the benefit of an incredibly committed, passionate cast, firm-handed direction and an in-the-round presentation which makes this show very intimate indeed make this an intense theatrical experience not to be missed,
Engaging for all of its two-and-a-half heart-wrenching hours, this is a script where every sentences is there for a purpose, where every word of dialogue counts. Very little is difficult here, or obtuse. Larry Kramer is brilliant but he is not a subtle man. He does not speak in metaphors, but rather through a megaphone.
So does his alter ago in the play, one Ned Weeks, modelled of course on Kramer himself. This is an autobiography after all, the thinly disguised story of how Kramer formed the GHMC (Gay Mens Health Crisis) in the early days of the AIDS crisis, although it’s key to the plot that no one knew what that disease was at the time. GMHC went on to become the largest AIDS Service Organization in the world, but not before dumping Kramer, the other founding members unable to tolerate his strident brand of politics, not to mention his priorities (prevention) that differed markedly from theirs (support for those with the disease)
So in 1985 a vexed Larry Kramer, spitting fire and brimstone, went out and wrote about it and called it The Normal Heart. The play ran for a year on Broadway. It has since had over 600 productions in North America alone. It’s 2011 Brioadway revival directed by Joel Grey won three Tony Awards. Meanwhile Kramer lives on. He was diagnosed with HIV himself in 1988, became something of a poster child for the Lazarus effect of HAART later. He is now 76.
So the show comes with a lot of back story – and baggage. It is Kramer’s view of what happened, and only his, but that doesn’t lessen its considerable value one iota as an insider's take on a remarkable time in the history of this world we live in.
So yes, it is a historical drama thorough the eyes of one man who was not just there, but shaped the path we are on. But that’s far from all. There is in fact a multiplicity of ways you can look at this show. Here are some of them.
- An autobiography of Larry Kramer
- A historical drama, New York, circa 1981-83.
- A stinging indictment of the shameful lack of response to the crisis from almost everyone involved
- A contagion-based thriller as doctors, a handful of patient and their A-list friends – and few others – struggled to understand who or what was killing them
- A study in the politics of power and how organizations work – or don’t – as Ned and his friends struggle with the differences which threaten and then destroy their alliances
- A love story between Ned and Felix, and perhaps more interestingly, between Ned and his very straight brother Ben.
Perhaps more than anything else, though, it’s a discourse on sexual politics - about when the hedonism of the 70s clashed head-on with the idea that gay men needed to curb their sexual appetites - stop having sex - in order to stop the virus spreading, this at a time when it wasn’t fully understood, but only suspected, that sex was in fact the agent. So there is a LOT going on here. It’s easy to overlook Kramer’s skill in guiding us through this morass of themes, however dialogue-heavy and full of exposition it seems at times.
Back to the production. frankly it’s hard to find fault. I liked Joel Greenberg’s work with The Laramie Project, also with Studio 180, eight years ago and that same finesse is present here. Commendable too is his choice of staging the show in the round - or rather the square. It creates a strong sense of intimacy where most of the audience are within a few feet of the action, so an already engaging play becomes immediate, almost unbearably so at times, particularly when emotions flare, as they often do. The plain stage, although scattered with debris by play’s end, works well with a few props brought in for each scene.
He's handpicked an ensemble cast in every sense of the word. Individually they shine - and I’ll get to that, but their strength is in playing off each other. That passion they both bring and depict, that electricity, those sparks may well be what audiences remember most.
The cast? Oh my, are they good! Jonathon Wilson in the lead role of Ned Weeks is remarkable. Kramer has portrayed himself in Ned as a likeable nebbish initially inexperienced in gay politics. “No one with a brain gets involved in gay politics” he says near the start. But Wilson steers Ned through a remarkable transformation with a great deal of skill, so that meek, uninvolved Ned becomes brittle, frothing-at-the-mouth activist Ned before our eyes in a thoroughly believable way. Meanwhile we like Ned despite his awful behaviour, which is, I’m sure, exactly how Kramer wanted it, however difficult to pull off. Wilson is in full control throughout though, and makes a difficult role look effortless.
Who else to single out? I really don’t want to, but Sarah Orenstein impresses right out of the gate as the wheelchair-bound no-nonsense doctor, Emma Brookner. She is key because it is Brookner who is most clued in to the nature of the virus and also the principal proponent of the no-sex approach to stopping it's spread, from whom Ned gets his cue. Ryan Kelly as Mickey Marcus has one of the show’s most brilliantly pulled-off dramatic moments as he breaks under pressure. Jeff Miller as Felix Turner, the NY Times writer who is initially hostile but who becomes Ned’s doomed lover, handles a ghastly transition beautifully. And let’s not forget the absolutely super John Bourgeois as Ned’s up-tight lawyer brother Ben, who portrays the extremely complicated relationship these two siblings have, and had in real life, in the most delicate, nuanced performance of the night.
I hate to leave anyone out here, so I won’t. Paul Essiembre impresses mightily as Bruce Niles, the closeted gay man who leads the organization while worrying whether the word gay should appear on their envelopes (what would the mailman think!) It’s a key role and he’s absolutely charismatic in it. Young Jonathan Seinen as southern belle Tommy Boatwright nicely injects humour where humour is needed (for all its sturm und drang, this is actually quite a funny play). And even smaller parts like those played by Mark McGrinder and Mark Crawford - this is a large cast - are handled with a great deal of panache.
So major kudos to everybody in the cast; they are remarkably strong, committed and connected throughout. They deserved the immediate and prolonged standing ovation the opening night audience gave them without a moment of hesitation.
Whether or not you find fault with its politics, this is queer theatre at its most powerful and most relevant. It has much wider appeal, though than with the politicized. Straight audiences and those in the queer community who did not live though this will find it a revelation in particular.
So go, all of you. You will be moved.
THE NORMAL HEART runs until November 6, 2011 at Buddies in Bad Times Theatre, 12 Alexander Street, Toronto. Box Office -- 416-975-8555.
More info: www.studio180theatre.com