BBW Review: THE NORMAL HEART Highlights a community's struggle at The City Theatre
The City Theatre Company presents Larry Kramer's THE NORMAL HEART, with compassion and care to the tragic subject matter. This mostly autobiographical tale from Kramer, shines a light on the HIV crisis that hit the gay community in New York City in the early eighties. With the horrifying illness gaining steam, and compounded by little to no cooperation from the community at large, the newly liberated 'gay movement' was stonewalled and devastated by the effects of the AIDS virus. To tell the story of his own experience during this plague, Larry Kramer puts his experiences to paper to share the heart-wrenching realities many homosexual communities faced during this time. At the helm of the activism is an outspoken, abrasive crusader Ned Weeks (a self-reflection of Larry Kramer). THE NORMAL HEART begins in a hospital waiting room with a few young men trading quips back and forth that all will be well. Within minutes, we discover all is not well, and the true villain of the show, the HIV virus, is about to take center stage in these happy young men's lives. Weeks is adamant about finding help for his crusade and passionately tells his fellow peers to "button it up" for the time being. The timeline of the show follows the rising death toll of the AIDS virus from all over the world. As events escalate, Ned's personal relationships fall victim to his passionate and outlandish tactics in seeking support for their cause. The reflection and passion written by Kramer is nothing shy of breath-taking. With an emphasis on awareness and education, THE NORMAL HEART stays relevant and interesting for the present-day theatre-goer.
Playing an intense modern character like Ned Weeks would rival the undertaking of playing King Lear. Heath Thompson (playing the main role), brings the intensity needed to communicate such a dynamic and complicated character. Thompson provided urgency to the role and attempted to keep his castmates in step with the quick pace of the show's developing crisis. Week's lover, Felix Turner (played by Mackenzy Cade) played the "straight" character well to Thompsons over-the-top reactions and opinions. Turner's vocal work rivaled that of Ben Stein however, as it was entertaining for a bit, but tired by the end of the show. Ned Weeks' successful lawyer brother, Ben Weeks (played by Scott Poppaw), was surprisingly magnetic onstage and added some much-needed depth to the relationships developed in Kramer's play.
The remaining cast members were unfortunately one-noted and lacked the dynamic character development required for such intense material. The passionate Doctor Emma Brookner (played by Laura Ray), acts as the oracle of information in this story. However, Ray's portrayal was angry. Very angry. She remained angry the entire show. She delivered her performance with a consistent heated rage, which seemed out of place at times. There is no denying that anger is very relevant to such a disturbing premise, but there are different types of anger, and variation would have humanized Brookner's experience and created empathy from the audience's perspective. The scenes involving the activists coming together to rally their community lacked rhythm and experience from the actors. The urgency seemed feigned and with the few character choices made by each member, the honest words of Kramer were lost to awkward and forced intimacy between them. Kramer's soliloquies are precious gifts to performers. These monologues help drive the story and paint a vivid picture of the pain going on outside of the limited stage. Unfortunately, apart from Thompson and Poppaw, the monologues were made compelling simply by Kramer's words, not by the performers' deliveries.
The staging presented by Directors Carl Gonzales and Lacy Cannon Gonzales had phrases relevant to the LGBTQ movement and community. This back drop was appropriate for the changing scenes all over New York City. Apart from the walls, the setting was confusing. The hospital bed used in the first scene remained on stage, fully lit, sometimes being used, sometimes not. The was confusing along with the random tables also along this wall, sometimes being used, sometimes not. With the lights dimming between the intense scenes, reflection and resonation rippled through the house as the next scene was being set up. However, during the climax, items were left all over the stage causing much confusion to where and how the characters were developing. Did the gurney represent looming death? Were there no scene changes towards the end because of the quick and chaotic nature of the HIV/AIDS virus? If these were choices made by the artistic team, they did not go far enough and haphazardly distracted from the story. Through further research I have found these items/props left on stage are directly from Larry Kramer's staging in the original script. As this choice makes sense conceptually, it was lost on the audience because the staging did not go far enough.
THE NORMAL HEART is presented with love and care by the members of The City Theatre Company. The shows content and character speaks for itself as it shines a bright light on the atrocities that surrounded the spread of the HIV virus. The emphasis on education and enlightenment is very respectable by Carl Gonzales and Lacey Cannon Gonzales. The reality and impact of the AIDS crisis is communicated with such poetry from Larry Kramer, and I applaud The City Theatre for challenging their audiences and players with this deep and hard-hitting material. Theatre is about telling all stories through influence and expression. THE NORMAL HEART supports this expression and adds much needed depth to the Austin Theatre scene.
THE NORMAL HEART
NOW PLAYING AT THE CITY THEATRE
June 30 - July 16. Thursday - Saturday 8:00 pm. Sunday 3:00 pm.
The City Theatre 3823 Airport Blvd. Austin 78722.
General Seating $15. Front/2nd Row Reserved $20-25. Thursday all seats $10. Tickets at the door $20. Group and student discounts.
Photo Credit: The City Theatre Company