Theater Rhinoceros’ The Normal Heart Might Break Your Own Heart
Theater Rhinoceros, the local theater company which has offered cutting edge Queer theater to Bay Area audiences since 1977, offers a fine revival of Larry Kramer’s seminal AIDS play The Normal Heart.
John Fisher, who also directed, stars as Ned Weeks, a character Kramer based upon himself. Weeks has quite a lot on his plate–its 1981 and all his friends, and their friends, are dying of a mysterious illness which no one can identify and which many doctors are refusing to treat, with one exception.
Leticia Duarte, the play’s lone female cast member, offers a wonderful performance as Dr. Emma Brookner, a survivor of polio who’s trapped in a wheelchair. In a New York City who’s government doesn’t care about the growing crisis, Brookner tries in vain to treat her patients, or at least to allow them a peaceful and dignified death.
Kramer, through Ned Weeks, had the courage to say what no one else at the time would. Many of his warnings ring true today–such as the need for gay men to indulge in safer sexual practices. Most gay men didn’t want to hear it, and Weeks finds himself cast as a pariah by his own people–the very people he’s trying to save from a horrific fate. Fisher plays Kramer’s anger and frustration beautifully. He and Duarte have several powerful scenes in which they vent their anger not only at the government but at a Queer community that just won’t listen–one particularly moving scene shows Weeks being thrown out of an AIDS organization he co-founded.
The play’s best scene is shared by Fisher and Jeremy Cole, who plays Ned’s “lover” (the vernacular of the time) Felix Turner. Felix is dying, his time is running out–he cries about how ugly he is and tells Ned not to touch him. Ned embraces him and the two cry together. It’s an unforgettable sequence.
Today The Normal Heart stands as an important history lesson. At a time when AIDS drugs can keep the HIV inflicted alive and healthy for decades, many have forgotten about how horrific the plague years were. Kramer’s prose reminds us that nearly an entire generation was lost–this should not be forgotten.
Fisher’s direction puts the play’s storyline in it’s proper historical context. Each scene features a blown-up image of a New York Times newspaper report in the background which coincides with the date of the scene’s action. Fisher also seeks to personalize his production for audiences–at both sides of the back of the stage stand two white boards. Sharpies are provided so that audience members can write the names of friends and loved ones lost to AIDS on the boards during intermission. On the night BAS took in the show many names had already been written–more were added that night. The mourning for the lives lost never ends.
The Normal Heart can be seen at the Gateway Theater, 215 Jackson at Battery Street, through November 25. Ticket info at the Theater Rhinoceros website.