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Larry Kramer’s The Normal Heart Beats Strongly at Burning Coal

RATING: ★ ★ ★ ★ ★

In 1991, playwright Tony Kushner employed AIDS as an invisible force that sends his Angels in America: A Gay Fantasia on National Themes characters pinballing around New York and into each other’s lives. In 1992, the disease’s effects put the bitter in the bittersweet second act of the musical Falsettos. And in 1993, composer-librettist Jonathan Larson’s workshop of Rent presented a sexy, palatable, sanitized version of the dark truths of the AIDS crisis.

These narratives tell a story of a plague run rampant. The hurricane has picked up full speed, and we are finally realizing just what we are up against.

But before the tempest was a rumble of distant thunder:

In 1981, an unexplained case of enlarged lymph nodes among gay men was observed and studied by Dr. Mathilde Krim and a team of New York City physicians. You know how the world ends, don’t you? Not with a bang, but a whimper.

Four years, 7,239 reported cases, and 5,596 deaths later, playwright and co-founder of the Gay Men’s Health Crisis Larry Kramer, penned the 1985 autobiographical drama The Normal Heart — one of the most confrontational and candid examinations of the earliest days of the plague.

In the current Burning Coal Theatre Company production, director Emily Ranii has molded a company of actors as in-tune with each other as any orchestra. The ensemble bares its collective soul for the audience without artificiality.

Our protagonist, Ned Weeks — the proxy of Kramer himself — is not a subtle communicator. No diplomat would found an organization named The AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power (ACT UP). The incomparable Marc Geller captures Ned’s rage, sorrow, and everything in-between. His is a performance of the highest caliber.

Byron Jennings II gives a nuanced performance as Ned’s more diplomatic counterpart Bruce Niles, delivering masterfully one of the most devastating monologues in American drama. Preston Campbell ably balances confidence and despair as Ned’s lover Felix Turner, whereas Mark Filiaci portrays Ned’s businesslike brother Ben with great control.

An exemplary Julie Oliver portrays the play’s only woman — the outraged but compassionate Dr. Emma Brookner — and does so without any trace of exaggeration. A riveting Michael Babbitt is breathtakingly pure as grassroots activist Mickey Marcus. Cody Hill is a perfectly sensitive and flamboyant Tommy Boatwright, although he seems very young for the role of a hospital administrator.

James Merkle tackles three roles, doing his best work as the nerdy Grady. David Hudson defines clearly a quartet of characters — including Hiram Keebler, Ned’s seemingly impenetrable adversary.

Lighting and scenic designer Ed Intemann has created a smart, minimalist set — enhanced by scenic artist Meredith Riggan — and, with evocative lighting, has kept the show alive through its many scene transitions. Indications of time and place are supported by David Ranii’s economical sound design — featuring a haunting string score — amplified by engineer Juan Isler.

Costume designer KaHei Shum eschews nonessential wardrobe changes, often favoring single costumes as efficient markers of character and setting, and efficient props designer Elizabeth Newton favors function over clutter.

The nearly 2.5-hour running time flies by, held aloft by production stage manager Adam Budlong and his quartet of assistants: Dylan Bailey, Christopher Barefoot, Riley Lang, and Damion Younts. Our director has wisely chosen actor-executed scene changes, which keeps the play light on its feet.

Under the keen eye of technical director Barry Jaked, an array of more than 100 red picture frames hang high above the stage, echoed by a thick red line that runs the perimeter of the stage floor. To decipher their meaning, you’ll have to get your ticket. And I recommend that you do.

PARENTAL ADVISORY: Be mindful that this production contains strong language and sexual situations.

SECOND OPINION: Jan. 20th Raleigh, NC CVNC review by Roy C. Dicks:; and Jan. 17th Durham, NC Indy Week mini-preview by Byron Woods: (Note: To read Triangle Arts and Entertainment’s online version of the Jan. 20th Triangle Review review by Pamela Vesper and Kurt Benrud and the Jan. 21st review by Martha Keravuori and Chuck Galle, click and, respectively.)

Burning Coal Theatre Company presents THE NORMAL HEART at 7:30 p.m. Jan. 25-27, 2 p.m. Jan. 28, 7:30 p.m. Feb. 1-3, and 2 p.m. Feb. 4 in Murphey School Auditorium, 224 Polk St. Raleigh, North Carolina 27604.

TICKETS: $25 ($15 students, teachers, and active-duty military personnel and $20 seniors 65+), except $5 Student Rush Tickets (sold at the door, 5 minutes before curtain); $15 Thursdays; and $15 per person for groups of 10 or more.

BOX OFFICE: 919-834-4001 or

SHOW: and


2017-18 SEASON:



NOTE: There will be talkbacks with cast and local subject-matter experts following certain performances. Please click here (and scroll down) for the talkback schedule and names of the experts.


The Normal Heart (1985 Off-Broadway and 2011 Broadway autobiographical play): (Samuel French Inc.), (Internet Off-Broadway Database), (Internet Broadway Database), and (Wikipedia).

The Script: (Google Books).

Study Guide: (Studio 180 Theatre in Toronto, ON).

Larry Kramer (Bridgeport, CT-born playwright and activist, 1935-present): (Encyclopædia Britannica), (Internet Off-Broadway Database), (Internet Broadway Database), (Internet Movie Database), and (Wikipedia).

Emily Ranii (director and Boston University College of Fine Arts Academic Program Head, BU Summer Theatre Institute, in Boston, MA): (Burning Coal bio), (Boston University bio). (Internet Movie Database), and (Facebook page).


Dustin K. Britt, a Triangle native, is an actor and director. He holds an M.A.Ed. in Special Education from East Carolina University and teaches locally. Click here to read his reviews for Triangle Review and Triangle Arts and Entertainment. You can find him on Facebook as Dustin K. Britt and via his movie blog Hold the Popcorn.

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Categorised in: A&E Theatre Reviews, Lead Story, Reviews