Imagine that the people that you know and love are falling victim to a contagion that no one will acknowledge exists. You don’t know what is causing it, or how it is spread, or when or who it will strike next. But people keep getting diagnosed and are dying of this mysterious disease at an alarming rate.
You try to get the authorities to listen to you and to do something, but no one seems to care. Despite the increasing number of deaths, there are no newspaper articles; few doctors will touch the issue; and despite the exponential increase in diagnosed cases and deaths, the federal government won’t fund any research. Because you are gay.
This is the plot of the current Burning Coal Theatre Company production of The Normal Heart, an autobiographical play written by Larry Kramer and directed by Emily Ranii. The story swirls around Ned Weeks (played by Marc Geller), an irritable, older gay man in New York City. It is the early 1980s, at the very start of the AIDS epidemic. It was a time when being homosexual was seen as an unspeakable aberration, a sickness; and coming out of the closet could cost you your career, your friends, and your family.
Since the AIDS virus appeared to only impact gay men, no one wanted to take on the problem or to be perceptibly linked to the gay community. One courageous doctor led the charge to investigate the contagion, the polio-stricken and wheelchair-bound Dr. Emma Brookner (played beautifully by Julie Hall Oliver). Dr. Brookner encourages Ned to engage the gay community about the issue and to organize an advocacy group to raise awareness.
In the beginning, it is a diverse group of gay men who take up the cause, all the while worrying about their friends and lovers dying. Mickey (Michael Babbitt), the hippy; Tommy (Cody Hill), the flamboyant youngster of the group; Bruce (Byron Jennings II), the articulate (and closeted) vice president of Citibank; and Ned (Marc Geller), the outspoken one of the bunch.
The very first question to be answered by the group is who should lead the charge? Should it be the abrasive, loud-mouthed Ned, or the cordial Bruce? It’s a question of finesse versus outrage. How best to get the world to finally listen? But the group keeps hitting walls. The post office won’t send their letters. No newspapers will write stories.
Even when Ned asks his successful attorney brother, Ben (Mark Filiaci), to help fund the cause, Ben refuses to give money or even to allow Ned to use his firm’s name in support, all the while telling Ned about the millions that he is spending on his dream home. It’s yet another slap in the face for Ned.
The play asks a lot of difficult questions. How can people be so callous? How can government treat homosexuals as somehow less than straight individuals? How can we feel that the contagion is not everyone’s problem? How can humankind look down on those who are different? Isn’t every life a valuable one?
Yet, even as the play indicts those in power, it also takes a look at the homosexual community, too. It’s a surprise to hear that these disenfranchised gay men don’t want to include lesbians in the fight, because they apparently do not like them well enough. It’s a subtle nudge to show that like all people, homosexuals are complex humans with biases and bigotry.
Kudos to Ed Intemann and Elizabeth Newton for the set and props. The stage was set in theater-in-the-square, with the audience surrounding the action. Simple square tables and stiff-backed chairs are expertly used to denote the doctor’s office, the characters’ homes, the governor’s office. It’s a simple backdrop to allow the drama to be in complete focus.
Envelopes hang on clips in frames that surrounded the stage like wallpaper. As the play continues, the envelopes disappear from the frames and are secreted away, only to be given to audience members at the end of the show. We ultimately discovered that each envelope had a person’s name on it with a date, which we presume is the name of a person lost to the AIDS virus, although we were not expressly told this.
Inside these envelopes was a manifesto by the author of the play, vilifying the pharmaceutical companies, the disorganization of our healthcare system, and the like. We would have preferred to have instead been given a brief biography of the deceased person on the envelope, which would have been a more human touch.
From the Department of Picky-Picky: Having actors play more than one character is challenging for the audience, especially when they play principal characters in the play. It was mostly confusing, that is except for the standout actor, David Hudson. Even though he played several supporting characters in the show, each persona was so dramatically different in posturing and diction that it took us a minute to realize that Hudson was portraying multiple roles. We were mightily impressed.
The play is all about hypocrisy: hypocrisy on a personal level, as Ned speaks of monogamy while seeking relations with his peers; hypocrisy from individuals who are in fact gay who are unwilling to help their own; and hypocrisy from the public and from government in their treatment of homosexuals. And yet by watching the unflinching reality that is the AIDS epidemic, and examining ourselves, hopefully we learn from our past mistakes and realize how we can do better in the future. For some reason, the very existence of this play gave us hope that we can talk about tough issues when we need to.
Ultimately, this show is like watching a play about the sinking of the Titanic. We all know that the story will not end well and that there will be staggering losses, but we keep hoping that our favorite characters will make it onto the lifeboat.
SECOND OPINION: Jan. 20th Raleigh, NC CVNC review by Roy C. Dicks: http://cvnc.org/article.cfm?articleId=8798; and Jan. 17th Durham, NC Indy Week mini-preview by Byron Woods: https://www.indyweek.com/indyweek/the-normal-heart/Event?oid=10807870.
Burning Coal Theatre Company presents THE NORMAL HEART at 7:30 p.m. Jan. 20, 2 p.m. Jan. 21, 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 “Pay-What-You-Can” Performance on Sunday, Jan. 21st; $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 http://www.etix.com/.
2017-18 SEASON: http://burningcoal.org/season/.
NOTE 1:The 2 p.m. Sunday, Jan. 21st, show is a “Pay-What-You-Can” Performance.
NOTE 2: Arts Access, Inc. of Raleigh will audio-describe the show’s 2 p.m. Sunday, Sunday, Jan. 21st, performance.
NOTE 3: 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): http://www.samuelfrench.com/p/506/the-normal-heart (Samuel French Inc.), https://www.lortel.org/Archives/Production/1916 (Internet Off-Broadway Database), https://www.ibdb.com/broadway-show/the-normal-heart-489849 (Internet Broadway Database), and https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Normal_Heart (Wikipedia).
The Script: http://books.google.com/ (Google Books).
Study Guide: http://studio180theatre.com/site/wp-content/uploads/downloads/2013/02/2012_NORMAL-HEART-Study-Guide.pdf (Studio 180 Theatre in Toronto, ON).
Larry Kramer (Bridgeport, CT-born playwright and activist, 1935-present): https://www.britannica.com/biography/Larry-Kramer (Encyclopædia Britannica), https://www.lortel.org/Archives/CreditableEntity/5640 (Internet Off-Broadway Database), https://www.ibdb.com/broadway-cast-staff/larry-kramer-111622 (Internet Broadway Database), http://www.imdb.com/name/nm0469594/ (Internet Movie Database), and https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Larry_Kramer (Wikipedia).
Emily Ranii (director and Boston University College of Fine Arts Academic Program Head, BU Summer Theatre Institute, in Boston, MA): http://burningcoal.org/emily-ranii/ (Burning Coal bio), https://www.bu.edu/cfa/profile/emily-ranii/ (Boston University bio). http://www.imdb.com/name/nm2297056/ (Internet Movie Database), and https://www.facebook.com/emily.ranii (Facebook page).
Pamela Vesper has been a Raleigh resident for more than 20 years. A local attorney for licensed professionals, when she’s not in court, Pam can be found watching or participating in local theater productions or enjoying the vibrant Raleigh music and craft beer scene. She also loves indie and foreign films and was an anchor on the local cable show, Movie Minutes. Pam has an opinion on just about everything; just ask her. Kurt Benrud is a graduate of Cary High School and N.C. State University, and he has taught English at both. He first became involved in local theater in 1980. He has served on the board of directors for both the Cary Players and the Cary Playwrights’ Forum. He is also a volunteer reader with Triangle Radio Reading Service. Click here to read their reviews for Triangle Review and Triangle Arts and Entertainment.