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.

Sarjane Alverson and Joey Saunders. Photo by John Lamb

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.

Stephen Henley, Jeremy Goldmeier, Stephen Peirick and Jon Hey. Photo by John Lamb

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

Stephen Peirick and Joey Saunders. Photo by John Lamb

By Lynn Venhaus
Managing Editor
What price glory? St. Louis Actors’ Studio’s savvy state-of-play production of “Farragut
North” sketches a fascinating world that we have only glimpsed as it escalates
to a fever pitch every four years.

Beau Willimon’s insider look at cutthroat politics on the
presidential primary election campaign trail premiered in 2008, and is named
for a metro stop in D.C. He wrote it as a Juilliard Playwriting Fellow, loosely
based on his experiences working for Vermont Governor Howard Dean, a one-time
frontrunner in the 2004 presidential race.

The playwright, a 1995 John Burroughs School graduate, first
had experiences on Chuck Schumer and Hillary Clinton’s Senate campaigns. So,
this territory is obviously in his wheelhouse.

Willimon’s sharp commentary on backroom politics, 21st
Century-style, remains topical even though it came out over a decade ago. As sharks
circle, anticipating the Iowa Caucus kickoff to the 2008 U.S. presidential
primary elections, this whip-smart drama pulsates with passion and purpose.

Director Wayne Salomon shrewdly exposes the underbelly of
political operators like he’s playing in a championship chess tournament. As he
tautly maneuvers the manipulators, we see the designs, desires and dreams of
every character through what is being said and not said, while others lie in
wait, like a cobra. Who will survive, thrive or take a dive?

A crackerjack cast smoothly delivers Willimon’s clever
wordplay and penetrating dialogue, nimbly rattling off statistics, polls and
facts with confidence. Don’t worry – it’s not just a numbers game, for there is
enough human drama to keep us riveted.

Salomon achieves an immediate lived-in authenticity. Staged
under the harsh glare of artificial lighting, in drab hotel rooms on the Iowa campaign
trail, this nondescript set by Patrick Huber fittingly captures the dullness.

Despite the banality, you can feel the drive of the participants
during this dreary January period because it is the first major contest of a
very long season. Those who don’t do well tend to drop out in the coming days
and weeks after Iowa.

Peter Mayer and Spencer Sickman in “Farragut North” at St. Louis Actors Studio. Photo by Patrick HuberEnter the political operatives on the same side, Spencer
Sickmann (Stephen Bellamy) and David Wassilak (Paul Zara) in the throes of
battle, with the opposition represented by Tom Duffy (Peter Mayer). These top-tier,
highly intelligent actors bounce off each other with a tight rhythm, unleashing
diatribes with remarkable force and skill.

The modern political landscape may indeed be a circus, but
the people who play in that minefield are as fascinating as any Shakespeare
concocted.

We meet our polished practitioners of spin in a ubiquitous
hotel bar, trash-talking and regaling each other with stories of glory days,
fueled by alcohol and lust for power.

A few characters are more transparent than others, but Willimon
is quite cunning in his introductions of hotshot press secretary Bellamy, his
boss/mentor Zara and the bright-eyed new kid Ben, played with eager-beaver wide-eyed
enthusiasm by Joshua Parrack.

Bellamy is a likable smarty-pants whose cockiness just may
be his downfall, but how he’s usually one step ahead is impressive. Sickmann is
stunning in this labor-intensive endeavor, for he is on stage in every scene,
and as the smartest guy in the room, the passages he must convey are long. But
he does so with great zeal.

Wassilak’s character is the wild card here, and as he
reveals his clever string-pulls, it’s quite a feat, a new facet of the actor’s
work.

Mayer’s character is the necessary instigator, and he
quickly nails this slick master whose scenes are few but his influence looms
large.

Into this mix comes a major media outlet. Shannon Nara is Ida,
a New York Times reporter who assimilates herself as “one of the guys.” She
does what journalists are paid to do – network and observe. Nara projects a
smart, seasoned professional who knows how to meet the demands of her work –
and not show her cards.

The other female role, Molly, is a young, very ambitious,
starry-eyed campaign worker who is committed to getting what she wants. This character
feels the most cliched, forced. But Hollyn Gayle does what she can by showing
her sly determination.

Photo of Spencer Sickmann and Hollyn Gayle by Patrick HuberAs the layers are peeled back on some truly fascinating
characters – ones who are far more motivated than we initially think — get
ready for sneaky turns in this soul-sucking journey.
Nevertheless, one character represents the ideology of successful political
candidates, and that is a Latino restaurant server working at his family’s
place. Luis Aguilar earnestly professes hope that his chosen candidate can do
the things he says, that can fulfill the hopes and dreams of Americans who want
opportunities.

We are reminded of the democratic process, putting the ‘why’
into perspective, while the rest of the play is about the who, what and how.
After all, a candidate who gets people fired up is always the goal.

It doesn’t matter that this play occurs before widespread
use of smart phones and social media, for Willimon’s sobering account of modern
election campaigns still has the same core that marks all cautionary tales: the
games ambitious people play when stakes are high.

Therefore, this timely staging has as much in common with “Mr.
Smith Goes to Washington” idealism as it does with “The Sweet Smell of Success”
cynicism and the real-world optics created by Nixon’s dirty tricksters,
perfected by political consultant/absolute power master planner Karl Rove and the
media cross-over — evil divide-and-conquer architect Roger Ailes.
 
Even though Americans tend to not like watching the sausage being made, this
riveting piece gives us precise characters worth getting to know.

Willimon went on to develop an American version of the
British inside-politics series “House of Cards” for Netflix and served as showrunner
for four seasons. And he received an Oscar nomination for adapting “Farragut
North” into the George Clooney-Grant Heslov film “The Ides of March” in 2011.

Therefore, it’s interesting to see where it all began. This is far from the last word in politics, but if Willimon is keeping tabs, I want to see that outtake. And Salomon, also responsible for sound design, has well-chosen his opening and closing songs as apt punctuation.

“Farragut North” is presented by St. Louis Actors’ Studio Feb. 8 – 24 at The Gaslight Theatre, 360 N. Boyle Ave, St. Louis. Performances are Thursday through Saturday at 8 p.m. and Sunday at 3 p.m. Tickets are available through Metrotix.com For more information, visit www.stlas.org.