When Larry Kramer's "The Normal Heart" appeared at New York's Public Theatre more than 25 years ago, both critics and the viewing public saw that it was an important addition to the American dramatic canon. The play's Broadway run last season, directed by George C. Wolfe, confirmed that realization. Now Wolfe's production, which won a 2011 Tony Award, is being produced by Arena Stage.
The story of a group of AIDS activists, even before the acronym was known, "The Normal Heart" begins in July 1981 and ends in May 1984. It documents how the epidemic ravaged New York's gay community between those dates.
The central character, Ned Weeks (Patrick Breen), is a writer who desperately tries to get information about the sickness in order to educate his community. He visits Dr. Emma Brookner (the extraordinary Patricia Wettig), who treats homosexual men and knows their symptoms. She makes it clear that she has no answers, that there are just warning signs, that the best medicine is abstinence.
|'The Normal Heart'|
|Where: Arena Stage, 1101 Sixth St. SW|
|When: Through July 29|
|Info: $40 to $94; 202-488-3300; arenastage.org|
Ned goes to the New York Times, hoping for coverage of the mysterious affliction. He's rebuffed. He and his friends go to the mayor of New York and are put on hold. They are eventually given a paltry sum of money with the caveat that its source must remain anonymous. Finally, Ned and his friends set up a crisis center where they can man hotline phones.
The cast of "The Normal Heart" is pitch-perfect. Breen is lovable for his wackiness, passion, and determination. It's a difficult role, as he has to start angry, grow furious and still have somewhere left to go with his rage, but Breen pulls it off.
When he looks for coverage at the New York Times, Ned meets Felix (Luke MacFarlane), and the two become lovers. MacFarlane is superb as the suave, collected Felix, Ned's polar opposite, and a good deal of the success of this production depends on the intensity and credibility of their relationship.
Ned's homophobic brother, Ben, is portrayed well by John Procaccino. Christopher Hanke is entertaining as the flirty hospital administrator. Nick Mennell is excellent as the vice president of Citibank, who becomes the formal leader of Ned's group while refusing to admit publicly the truth about his own sexuality.
Wolfe has done a vivid remounting of his production at Arena. It is a powerful tribute to all those touched in any way by AIDS.