BWW Reviews: THE NORMAL HEART from Strawberry Theatre Workshop Seethes with Poignancy
Before "Rent" put AIDS into the mainstream, before "The Temperamentals" looked at the plight of closeted gay men, there was "The Normal Heart", Larry Kramer's somewhat autobiographical, ground breaking master work which shoved the AIDS crisis and the gay lifestyle front and center at a time when people preferred to think of it as someone else's issue. The current production from Strawberry Theatre Workshop may have a few wrinkles to iron out but the performances from the stellar cast do honor to the iconic work.
We go back to 1981 in New York where gay men live with their sexuality under wraps yet still indulge in abundance. Ned Weeks (Greg Lyle-Newton), a gay Jewish man with a big mouth and a short fuse, is troubled with the growing number of his gay friends who are getting sick and dying from an unknown disease. And even as the number of cases grows, mostly handled by Dr. Emma Brookner (Amy Thone), the medical establishment and the government (at all levels) refuse to recognize the growing threat. So Ned, along with his friends Bruce (Peter Crook) and Mickey (Stephen Black) fight to organize the community to pressure the government to recognize what's going on and do something about it. The problem is that most gay men (including those in their own ranks) don't want to get noticed or labeled as gay for fear of their livelihoods. And so, much of the burden of being the voice of a community falls to Ned even as he's beginning a relationship with fashion editor Felix (Andrew Russell).
Some may say it's a period piece that is only dusted off at anniversaries and milestones. And while it is a shout out to a bygone era and while we have come quite far since the days when people wouldn't even mention the words AIDS or gay except in whispered tones, the play, while spotlighting our progress, also points out that we are very much still in this fight. And director Sheila Daniels and her cast treat the show with complete respect and honesty and create a near seamless evening of powerful theater.
Lyle-Newton manages a superb performance as the brash and opinionated Ned. He keeps the passion and rage of the character in check as he drives the point of the play across and is completely engaging throughout. Crook, as the closeted Bruce, gives an incredible portrayal of a man trying to keep his station while remaining true to himself and completely nails his Act Two heart-wrencher of a monologue. Thone is blunt, fervent and the perfect match for Lyle-Newton as the two keep fighting the good fight. And she manages her own Act Two stunner as she lays it all out for the NIH. Black manages some wonderful moments as the meeker of the group, which makes his breakdown all the more gripping. And Russell gives a very studied performance as Felix, Ned's grounding influence, and at times feels a little too forced but then manages a transformation that is absolutely stirring.
So while this may be a period piece, it's still a glaring reminder of where we've come from and how far we still have to go and the folks at Strawberry Theatre Workshop recognize the import of that fight. And be sure and bring the tissues. This one's a crier.
As you may have seen in my previous reviews, with the new year comes new ideas and so I've implemented a three letter rating system for my reviews. They range from good to bad with WOW (A can't miss), YAY (Too damn good), MEH+ (Good, with some great things going for it), MEH (Just OK), NAH (You can miss this one) and WTF (I think you can figure out my complex code there). And so for "The Normal Heart" I must give it a WOW!
"The Normal Heart" from Strawberry Theatre Workshop performs at the Erickson Theatre through February 15th. For tickets or information visit them online at www.strawshop.org.