OREM — There’s something special about sitting down to a night of theater, particularly a gripping play that will take you to a particular time and place with memorable characters and dialogue. Such is the case with An Other Theater’s new production of Larry Kramer‘s play The Normal Heart. It is especially poignant to watch this play during Pride Month, as it focuses on the struggles of the gay community at the heart of the AIDS epidemic in the early ’80s.
The Normal Heart is a semi-autobiographical play that Kramer wrote after his experience founding and then being ousted from the Gay Men’s Health Crisis in 1983. The lead character Ned in the play has a similar journey with his unnamed organization that Kramer had. It is perhaps Kramer’s closeness to the material which gives The Normal Heart its staying power even today. It is certainly hard to imagine what audiences must have thought in 1985 during the peak of the AIDS epidemic. Kramer certainly holds nothing back and treats nobody with kid gloves. If anything, he is more critical of the gay community and leadership than the frustratingly inept government bureaucracy, although both are heavily criticized.
In An Other Theater’s production of The Normal Heart director Kacey Spadafora creates an intimate experience by having the audience on the stage with the performers. It is also a masked event, which helped underscore the current pandemic and that some may feel has also been managed poorly by governments around the world.
The cast features 9 performers led by Zack Elzey as Ned. It is a challenging role because Ned is frustrated, judgmental and more than a little unlikable. To Ned, doing the right thing and stopping all these people from dying seems like an obvious right choice, but so many seem to disagree — even within his own community. When his partner Felix (played by Ian Webb) gets sick, Ned’s desperation naturally becomes all the more intense and passionate.
While Ned and Felix are given most of the memorable monologues, there are moments when Bruce (played by John Valdez) is a strong character. For example, one gripping scene is when Bruce is forced to share the news with Ned that he is being fired from the organization. He clearly feels for Ned but also resents how difficult he can be to work with. Another interesting character is Dr. Emma (played by Alexis Boss) because she is in a wheelchair due to polio. So, she knows firsthand the effects of an epidemic. She tries to push the gay community into abstinence (as does Ned) for their own safety, but this is obviously rejected by most. In fact, Ned is treated as old-fashioned and not willing to embrace the sexual liberation the community had fought for over many years.
The sets and props by stage manager Patch Olsen are minimal: mostly a desk, some boxes and a few chairs. But this becomes a benefit to the production, as it helps the audience focus on the characters without any distractions. They also have musical interludes between scenes, and audience members can listen to all of the songs on their Spotify playlist included in the digital program. This was a nice touch, although it would have been nice to have had a few songs from the ’80s. In fact, the whole production doesn’t feel set in the ’80s. The costumes by Spadafora are all modern. I am not sure if that was by design or an oversight, but it might have added something to have period accurate clothes to the show.
Those attending The Normal Heart should be aware it is a long show at nearly 3 hours including a brief intermission. The chairs are hard and it can be a bit of a lengthy sit. However, it is worth staying to the end because the final sequence is very moving, and Webb and Elzey are fantastic together.
In a special touch after the play finished the cast gathered together and sang the Irish folk song “Homeward Bound.” Evidently this is not something typically done with The Normal Heart, but it was a moving and great way to end my evening with the actors.
With Pride Month winding down, I cannot think of anything better than seeing The Normal Heart at the An Other Theater Company. It is a fantastic way to be reminded of the history of gay activism and see the path that society has taken. The audiences will most likely cry and smile, but especially be moved to want to be a little more like Ned: to not just wait for things to happen but do something to enact change in the world.