BWW Reviews: Fountain Theatre Knocks Revival of Larry Kramer's THE NORMAL HEART Out of the Park
Larry Kramer's off-Broadway hit of 1985 is, sadly, every bit as viable today as it was almost thirty years ago. An assault on every organization in the world that would not offer assistance in researching the devastating new plague - the disease was not even named AIDS at that point - The Normal Heart holds nothing back, urging the gay community to wake up and abstain from having sexual contact, the press to give front page coverage to a crisis situation and the government to open up the purse strings and FUND. The wake-up call's revival at the Fountain Theatre, not seen in Los Angeles in nearly twenty years, is directed with meticulous detail by Simon Levy and has an outstanding cast led by the prolific Tim Cummings as Ned Weeks.
Winner of the Tony Award for Best Revival of a play in 2011, The Normal Heart has so much to say to so many, who still live in a world of denial caused by fear. The period of the play's action in NYC covers the beginnings of the disease from 1981-84, when the origin of HIV was a total mystery. Weeks wants to found an organization GMHC (Gay Men's Health Crisis) and is met with opposition wherever he turns, from his homophobic brother Ben, a prominent lawyer (Matt Gottlieb), who would rather spend two million on a house than assist a gay-related disease, and from a representative of the Mayor's office, who is most likely homosexual himself, but has strict orders to turn the other cheek. In fact, his refusal to cooperate pushes one of the key members of The New Group to the brink. Mickey (Fred Koehler), who works for the city, may be fired if he continues to participate. Another member of the circle Bruce Niles (Stephen O' Mahoney), the most handsome and articulate of the group is made President because it is thought that he will attract/reach a larger percentage of the population. However, Bruce prefers to remain closeted because of his job at the bank; so his platform is nebulous and problems within the group create further turmoil and opposition to the cause and to founder Weeks, who due to anger issues is viewed as out of control and eventually ousted. On the medical side of the fence there's Dr. Emma Brookner (Lisa Pelikan), a pioneer who is practically single-handedly covering the cases herself and desperately trying to get funding from the government. She seems harsh at first, but ends up being the cause's greatest ally. Then there's Felix Turner (Bill Brochtrup), a gay fashion writer for the New York Times, who is doubtful about Weeks' claims that the disease is akin to a plague, but eventually not only accepts the conditions, but falls in love with Weeks, becomes his lover and sadly contracts the deadly disease, pushing Weeks into untimely withdrawal.
The Normal Heart paints an ugly picture, but is a potboiler in riveting attention. The cast under Levy's taut direction is phenomenal. Cummings is a powerhouse, thoroughly consumed by the cause as well as his own personal deficiencies. A stellar performance! Equally strong is Pelikan as Dr. Brookner, a friend to the cause, who never lets up. Hers is a performance of great control. Brochtrup has never been better in his genuine approach to the sweet and caring Felix. Gottlieb is fiercely antagonistic as Ben. Koehler is astounding as he pours out a monologue with machine-gun ferocity and O'Mahoney has his finest moment in a heartbreaking story of a mate in the humiliating final moments of his life. Verton R. Banks brings great moments of humor and comic relief as flamboyant Tommy, and praise as well to Jeff Witzke and Ray Paolantonio (understudy to Dan Shaked), both playing more than one role.
Kudos to Jeffrey R. McLaughlin for his austere set design, to Adam Flemming for his uncanny video design focusing on dates, facts...and the people who have died from AIDS, R. Christopher Stokes for lighting and Peter Bayne for his engrossing sound with music.
The Normal Heart is a play I purposely stayed away from in the 80s for purely squeamish reasons. It's an emotional roller coaster ride for those of us who have lost so many friends and family to AIDS/HIV; it is not easy to take. But... the play must be seen by anyone who truly cares about the human condition. If anger takes control, channel that anger where it will do the most good and let it shine!