By Lynn Venhaus
At once an urgent call to action, historical political drama, and heart-wrenching story of love and friendship, “The Normal Heart” captures a specific time and place while resonating as a cautionary tale.
With an ensemble cast devoted to making every emotional beat authentic, Stray Dog Theatre’s brave and fearless production chronicles the growing AIDS crisis in New York City from 1981 through 1984, and how badly it was bungled.
It was a harrowing time, and gay activist Larry Kramer’s 1985 mostly autobiographical play is haunting as it conveys the confusion and chaos.
This work is a gripping account of how leaders in the gay community fought an indifferent, inefficient, and ineffective political system that ignored their plight until they couldn’t, as deaths were escalating in alarming way.
With a keen eye on the bigger picture, the company’s artistic director, Gary F. Bell, shrewdly directed principal character Ned Weeks’ journey from angry protestor to frustrated and furious advocate demanding change. It’s not just history, it’s personal.
During the early 1980s, Bell lived in New York City as the acquired immunodeficiency syndrome began decimating a terrified gay population. With the early years of another global pandemic not yet in the rearview mirror, Bell builds on that lack of knowledge and awareness to be relatable.
Many homosexuals were forced to live a closeted life, for fear of retaliation and being ostracized, or fired at work, or target of hate crimes. It was a very different time. And then, as the HIV/AIDS outbreak spread, so much fear and ignorance added fuel to the misunderstandings.
For those who remember living in the shadows 40 years ago, the pain of being unseen, unheard and dismissed during a growing public health crisis is palpable. Others who have been marginalized can identify, too.
Bell’s lean, cut-to-the-chase presentation focuses on perspective for the look back while being mindful of current parallels so that it feels contemporary and fresh.
In his best work to date, Peirick, a Stray Dog regular, brings an in-your-face intensity to Ned’s mission to make sense of what is happening while confusion reigns in the medical, political, and social circles in his orbit.
He shows how frightened Ned is for those around him, and how his laser-beam attention isn’t immediately shared by peers, much to his dismay. He pushes, he’s abrasive, he’s relentless – and eventually, he rattles the right cages and rallies others to see how the clock is ticking.
Newcomer Joey Saunders plays Felix Turner, a New York Times fashion writer who becomes involved in a serious relationship with Ned. When he is diagnosed with AIDS, how he deals with the decline from symptoms to the illness taking over his life is gut-wrenching and makes it deeply personal.
The other guys view their roles as important vessels, a duty they take seriously, as they all “go there,” daring to plumb emotions for a stunning depth of feeling.
In a dramatic turn as banker Bruce Niles, Jeffrey Wright pours out his anguish to tell how his lover died and the humiliation that followed, while Jon Hey melts down as the overwhelmed Mickey Marcus, frustrated by the lack of results.
It’s impossible not to be moved or not care about these people, to get into their heads and hearts as they confront the biggest health crisis of their time.
Characters get sick and die. Their lovers, co-workers, friends and family show symptoms and it doesn’t end well. Or those people refuse to accept and believe what is really happening.
Stephen Henley brings compassion to the Southern-style Tommy Boatright and Michael Hodges plays the dual roles of Craig Donner and Grady.
Three portray outsiders that are integral to the story.
A perfectly cast Sarajane Alverson is strong as Dr. Emma Brookner, who is in a wheelchair from childhood polio – a powerful visual. She is a crucial character who delivers the medical findings and sounds alarm bells
Jeremy Goldmeier has the thankless task of being the hard-edged municipal assistant Hiram Keebler and David Wassilak is buttoned-up Ben Weeks, Ned’s distant lawyer brother.
The austere set optimizes a growing set of file boxes as the HIV/AIDS cases surge and death toll mounts. Justin Been handled the scenic design and the sound work, punctuating the heightened emotions with dramatic instrumental music.
Kramer, always demanding, wanted to move the needle on tolerance and acceptance, which is why, 40 years later, this play has a far-reaching impact.
It is always hard to see so much time and energy spent on hate, even in historical context, but through art, there is also a glimmer of hope.
A play this pertinent has expanded its purpose at a time when we need to pay attention, for we must never forget. The organizers of today stand on the shoulders of giants, and Stray Dog is providing an important service to a new generation.
Stray Dog Theatre presents “The Normal Heart” from June 9 to 25, Thursday through Saturday at 8 p.m., with a Sunday, June 19, matinee at 2 p.m., at The Tower Grove Abbey, 2336 Tennessee, in Tower Grove East. Tickets are only offered in physically distanced groups of two or four. For more information: www.straydogtheatre.org
Lynn Venhaus has had a continuous byline in St. Louis metro region publications since 1978. She is a Rotten Tomatoes-approved film critic, currently reviews films for Webster-Kirkwood Times and KTRS Radio, covers entertainment for PopLifeSTL.com and co-hosts podcast PopLifeSTL.com…Presents, and writes features and news for Belleville News-Democrat and contributes to other publications. She is a member of CCA, AWFJ and St. Louis Film Critics Association. She is a founding member of the St. Louis Theater Circle.