BWW Reviews: The Normal Heart at Arena Stage - Breathtaking Performances Await You

By: Jul. 03, 2012

You have to give it to Arena Stage Artistic Director Molly Smith and Edgar Dobie (Executive Producer) that given the opportunity  to produce THE NORMAL HEART in DC, they didn't just jump, they leapt.

This may be the first professional production in DC, but not the first in the Baltimore/Washington area.  I recall that Baltimore's Center Stage, while Stan Wojewodski, Jr. was Artistic Director, presented the play during the 1985/86 season under the direction of Michael Engler with a cast that included an actor well-known to Center Stage audiences, Robert Dorfman.  It was very well received and very well done.

The events in THE NORMAL HEART occur between 1981 and 1984 in New York City where gay man seem to be suffering from an unknown disease.  Larry Kramer's play opened at New York's Public Theater in 1985. There must be a story how Center Stage got the rights to the play for their 1985-86 season. Maybe there were few other theaters willing to address the "problem" of dealing with gay males succumbing to an unknown virus and then dying. No one knew why. There was no way to know how it was transmitted.  The term AIDS was not even used. It's not even mentioned in the play.

Leave it to Director George C. Wolfe to bring back life into this gut-wrenching experience. He does a masterly job with a superb cast.

It is not often that a theatrical event really hits home.  My wife Lisa was touched early in the evening when the initial list of those who died is projected on the back white wall of the set, she saw the name of an individual who was a friend of the family and who she knew well. She recalled it was so hush hush. It was said he died of Cancer. No one would talk about it. She told me, "He was a wonderful guy, the sweetest guy, so handsome."  And she saw his name listed with the others who perished and wept.

The year was 1981. According to the autobiographical character Ned Weeks (played by the amazing Patrick Been) 41 have died. Then in March 1982, there were 500 reported cases. By October 1982 there were 1,000 cases. Of 256 who died, Weeks commented he personally knew 40.

The play chronicles the trials and tribulations of Weeks trying to get the gay community to attempt to get information about the unknown virus to those who should know about it.  He tries to get his wealthy attorney brother Ben (played by the superb John Procaccino) involved without the success he wanted. He tries to get Mayor Koch to notice what is going on.

He listens to the medical expert, the polio-stricken Dr. Emma Brookner (the incomparable Patricia Wettig who I so adored in the television series "Thirty Something" with her husband Ken Olin) who tries to instill in Ned the need to tell the Gay community to abstain from sex to try to save lives.

Then Weeks succumbs to a love affair with Felix Turner (the amazing Luke MacFarlane) who shortly thereafter has lesions on his feet, the first sign of a problem.

Then there is the character Mickey Marcus (the talented Michael Berresse) who gives a spell-binding tirade towards the end of the play.

The remainder of the cast also excel: Tom Berklund, Chris Dinolfo, Christopher J. Hanke, Jon Levenson, and Nick Mennell.

The playwright just celebrated his 77 birthday this week and like he did following many of the 2011 Tony-winning performances in New York, had an individual distribute  a one page plea to patrons as they were leaving the Kregger Theater that started with the following: "Please know that everything in THE NORMAL HEART happened. These were and are real people who lived and spoke and died , and are presented here as best as I could...Four members of the original cast died as well, including my dear sweet friend, Brad Davis, the original Ned...Please know that as I write this the world has suffered at the very least some 75 million infections and 35 million deaths. When the action of the play that you have attended tonight begins, there were 41."

I suggest that the Arena Stage make it easy to collect funds for Aids research following each performance like Broadway Cares/Equity Fights Aids does during the year.

At the end of the play, the names of the dead are projected all over the theater, spreading like a wild fire. The audience is stunned. Couples are hugging each other, many are crying, there are tears everywhere. You could even see the watering eyes of the splendid cast during the curtain call.

I have to admit when I meet Patrick Breen after his extraordinary performance, I had watery eyes. He understood.

Do not miss this theatrical experience of a lifetime. You will never forget it.

THE NORMAL HEART continues until July 29, 2012. For tickets call 202-488-3300. Visit for video-clips.



Arena Stage will host a special benefit performance of THE NORMAL HEART along with the Washington AIDS Partnership, Monday, July 23 at the Mead Center. For information, contact Laura Haynes at 202-600-4030 or write

THE NORMAL HEART is an Affiliated Independent Event of AIDS 2012, the biennial  International AIDS Conference July 22-27, 2012 in DC. For more information, visit

You can also see sections of the AIDS Memorial Quilt on display in the Mead Center, along with images from the HIV and AIDS related collections of the Archives Center at the Smithsonian's National Museum of American History.

As you enter the down steps to the orchestra seating, notice the quilt regarding the late composer Howard Ashman which features all sorts of "sea creatures".