June 21, 2012 at 11:59 am EDT | by Patrick Folliard
‘Heart’ of the matter
Larry Kramer, The Normal Heart, HIV/AIDS, Arena Stage, gay news, Washington Blade

Patrick Breen, left, as Ned and Luke MacFarlane as Felix in ‘The Normal Heart’ at Arena Stage. (Photo by Scott Suchman; courtesy Arena )

‘The Normal Heart’
Through July 29
Arena Stage
1101 6th Street, SW

Larry Kramer’s “The Normal Heart,” is aging well, breathtakingly so. This was proved last year on Broadway and it’s being demonstrated again with a powerfully searing production now playing at Arena Stage.

When Kramer’s biographical take on the early days of the AIDS crisis premiered in New York in 1985, gay men were dying in large numbers and then-President Reagan had yet to utter the word “AIDS” publicly, so not surprisingly the gay playwright’s words reportedly rang angry and alarmed. Today, Arena’s stripped-down and fast-paced revival helmed by gay director George C. Wolfe (who co-staged the Tony-winning Broadway version) still conveys the fury and fear while embracing the empathy and sadness also found in Kramer’s stunning play.

Kramer’s script wastes no time in establishing the horror of the situation. Seated in their doctor’s waiting room (circa 1981 Manhattan), several gay men tensely discuss the still nameless plague that is making them ill and killing their friends. They talk early symptoms (swollen glands, night sweats, fatigue), treatment (almost nothing) and chances of survival (slim). As one patient exits the office revealing a youthful face jarringly marred by Kaposi sarcoma lesions, another enters collapsing from the effects of a violent seizure. The plague is on and it’s going to get worse.

The action focuses on irascible but likeable writer/activist Ned Weeks, a Kramer stand-in superbly played with nuance and great heart by Patrick Been. After several informational meetings and an examination with Dr. Brookner (Patricia Wettig), a prickly physician whose patients include many of the epidemics’ first victims, Ned is convinced that gay men will need to save themselves. He suspects the disease is sexually transmitted.

Determined to rally gays to action, Ned creates an advocacy group similar to Gay Men’s Health Crisis (co-founded by Kramer), and manages to grow the organization despite a lack of support from closeted New York City Mayor Ed Koch and a largely apathetic gay community. Eventually, Ned’s co-members, wrongly but understandably, reject his increasingly angry style as well as his promotion of total abstinence (the concept of safe sex would come later). “We just feel that you can’t tell people how to live,” says Bruce (Nick Mennell), one of the organization’s more popular members. Ned is forced out.

More than a tirade, “The Normal Heart” is also an absorbing family drama. Ned has the love and support of his hotshot lawyer brother played by John Procaccino, but yearns for his total acceptance. It’s also a medical mystery and quite strikingly, a sweet love story. While the plague rages, Ned unexpectedly finds love with Felix, a New York Times style writer beautifully played by handsome gay actor Luke Macfarlane. He’s Ned’s first serious lover.

In the second act when Felix is diagnosed with the deadly virus, he warns Ned that things will become messy, and indeed they do. Messy and heartbreaking, as evidenced by the ongoing sniffles and stifled sobs heard throughout Arena’s Kreeger Theatre.

Plague weary, the central characters finally crack in a series of emotionally raw monologues. Beleaguered activist Mickey (subtly played by Michael Berresse) considers suicide; the typically reserved Dr. Brookner rails against the smug government doctor who refuses her application for a grant; conservative Bruce, a bank V.P. and former Green Beret, dissolves to tears explaining his late lover’s humiliating death; and Ned fiercely expresses his disappointment with the gay community’s inadequate early response to the epidemic.

David Rockwell’s stark set is quietly monumental: White walls embossed with AIDS-related words and phrases (also white) which — depending on the David Weiner’s smart lighting — can or cannot be seen in relief. Also, various locale descriptions and, most affectively, the names of actual AIDS victims are projected on to the set. As the play progresses, these projected names grow exponentially.

The terrific cast also includes Christopher J. Hanke as Tommy Boatwright, a saucy but caring southerner; Jon Levenson as the mayor’s imperious aide de camp; local actor Chris Dinolfo is the young patient with K.S; and Tom Berklund plays Grady, a dim but well-built volunteer.

For Kramer, who learned he was HIV-positive in 1988, “The Normal Heart” might simply serve as proof that he was right all along, but that’s antithetical to his fighting spirit. At Arena, leaflets penned by Kramer decrying the un-won global war on AIDS are distributed to audience members as they leave. The battle continues.

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