How jarring to realize that nearly all the skilled, standout actors bringing Richmond Triangle Players’ riveting production of “The Normal Heart” to life are too young to remember how the plague began.
Even those of us who recall walking big-city streets and marking days in our trusty pocket calendars in the early 1980s might be surprised at just how early the acquired immune deficiency syndrome — AIDS — started affecting a generation of gay men.
Larry Kramer’s 1985 play is a searing and essential chronicle of the dawn of the AIDS era.
Still powerful testimony to the confusion and fecklessness that surrounded the initial response to AIDS, “The Normal Heart” plunges us into a maddening tick-tock procedural of how a clutch of New Yorkers, starting in 1981 when the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention certified it as an epidemic, tried to hold back a wave that eventually became a tsunami.
The facts and outrage that gush from Kramer’s drama, based on real-life crusaders and events of the day, take us back to a time when the puzzle pieces of the AIDS mystery were too scattered to allow a clear picture of how a cure might emerge.
Ned Weeks (Jim Morgan), a young gay writer, watches helplessly as gay friends and associates fall victim to symptoms that first cause lesions and then turn into unaccountable — and fatal — diseases.
It falls to Dr. Emma Brookner (Dawn Westbrook), a steely physician willing to walk directly into the teeth of the storm, to tell Ned how best to avoid spreading the weirdly infectious syndrome.
“Tell gay men to stop having sex,” she says.
But as “The Normal Heart” teaches us through an especially grim history lesson, battling AIDS required the gay community to fight on multiple fronts.
The clinical mystery alone confounded everyone. Was AIDS in the drinking water? A product of promiscuous sex? Or perhaps the result of dedicated monogamy? A government-created virus? It could be anywhere. It could be everywhere. Nobody knew.
The news media barely covered the issue, and gay writers like Ned’s associate Felix (Stevie Rice), later his lover, are reluctant to “out” themselves in the workplace by showing too much interest in the story.
Hospitals turn their backs on the dying. The federal government refuses to provide sufficient research funding. New York Mayor Ed Koch drags his feet and sends only staffer Hiram (Joseph Bromfield) to field Ned’s increasingly desperate complaints.
Worse still, the gay community is at war with itself. Ned’s budding advocacy organization decides to elect Bruce (Chris Hester), a closeted financial executive, its president in order to put a diplomatic face on the mounting frustration that finally spills out from hard-working activists Grady (Lucian Restivo), Tommy (Dan Cimo) and Mickey (Dan Stackhouse).
And through it all, there remains the poisonous social antipathy represented by Ned’s brother, Ben (Andrew Boothby), who offers legal advice but hints at mainstream America’s most scurrilous private thoughts about why AIDS may have targeted gay men: No matter who they were born to be, and regardless of whom they choose to love, maybe they just deserve it.
Director George Boyd’s smart choice to push the dialogue to breakneck pace helps communicate the crisis’ sense of urgency, and Frank Foster’s scenic design adroitly casts the specter of death over the production: A hospital gurney does repeat duty as table, desk, and other furniture; the set, a stately rendering of a New York bath house, reminds us that such social retreats turned out to be ground zero in the communicable-virus storm.
In an especially heartbreaking coda, the names of AIDS victims known and loved by the “The Normal Heart” cast and crew are projected on the set at show’s end.
Those with only the “normal hearts” W.H. Auden lamented in his resigned and bitter poem might turn their eyes away. But this excellent show invites us to lift our gaze and look directly into the face of AIDS once more, and we are the better for it.