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BWW Review: Larry Kramer's Powerful THE NORMAL HEART Is an Emotional Punch in the Gut at the Carrollwood Players

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A Devastating Experience

BWW Review: Larry Kramer's Powerful THE NORMAL HEART Is an Emotional Punch in the Gut at the Carrollwood Players

"How many men to conquer Mars? How many dead to reach the stars?" --Joan Baez, "Saigon Bride"

"How many of us have to die before you get scared off your ass and into action?" --Larry Kramer in an article for the New York Native

I was eighteen years old on July 3rd, 1981. "Bette Davis Eyes" was in its final weeks at #1 on the pop charts. Superman II was leading the box office, followed by films like Raiders of the Lost Ark and Stripes. And in the New York Times, on page 20, the very first article on what would later be called AIDS appeared: "Rare Cancer Seen in 41 Homosexuals." Reading the article you would never know the horrors of the plague to come: "Doctors in New York and California have diagnosed among homosexual men 41 cases of a rare and often rapidly fatal form of cancer, Eight of the victims died less than 24 months after the diagnosis was made."

July 3rd, 1981, will always be a historic day for the gay community--like June 28, 1969 (Stonewall), November 27, 1978 (the killing of Harvey Milk), or June 26, 2015 (gay marriage legalized). Larry Kramer's THE NORMAL HEART deals with the early years of the AIDS epidemic--the hateful apathy of politicians (especially the Reagan White House and the office of New York Mayor Ed Koch), the helplessness of the medical community, and the denial of the gay community. It was a perfect storm for such a disease to spread, and trying to steer his way through the medical tsunami is Ned Weeks, Kramer's alter ego. (If you haven't already, please read Kramer's collection of essays, Reports on the Holocaust: The Making of an AIDS Activist, which is the best chronicle of those years you'll find.)

Weeks seems to be the lone soul screaming at an uncaring world. Forty of his friends have died, and nobody seems to care. The New York Times writes about the disease seven times after numerous deaths while, Weeks notes, the Tylenol scare that killed less than ten people had 54 articles. And now on top of everything else, including a strained relationship with his brother, Weeks has found love for the first time with a New York Times columnist, and soon things will look much bleaker.

I had the honor of attending the final performance of THE NORMAL HEART at the Carrollwood Players black box theater on Saturday night, November 13th. I have seen dozens and dozens of shows over the years in that space (both the black box and the mainstage), but this is certainly the most powerful that I've experienced there. It leaves you devastated, emotionally bruised. (I just wish it had a longer run, since it closed after five performances.)

The cast is incredible, breathing Kramer's angry yawp to life.

Playing Weeks, Luis Graham, with a gray beard not unlike Kramer's, is perfection. His Ned Weeks is on a mission; his ability to piss off friends and foe does not work in his favor. He speaks his mind, unapologetic in his gayness, but knowing that a change in behavior of an entire community is required to survive. Graham gives a dynamic performance, quiet one moment, bellowing the next. He takes his time onstage, never rushing even though he has so much angry energy. His tears become our tears. He's fighting a one-man war where so many others don't even know there's a war being waged. It's a bravura turn, one of the best performances by anyone this year.

The entire cast is phenomenal, some of the finest acting you'll find in a community theatre show. Actually, take the "community theatre show" out of the previous line. This is some of the finest acting you'll find anywhere. This cast 100% committed, each one turning in stellar work.

Tristan J. Horta as Mickey Marcus has a scene that rips your heart out. In Act 2, Horta's Marcus has lost it, going through a convulsion of anger and sadness and surrender, hitting him all at once. He digs deep inside of himself and pushes the performance to the next level.

Laura Fleming Roberts is the wheelchair-bound Dr. Bookner, the only female in the cast. Dr. Bookner sees nothing but sick young gay men--men who will likely die--and Washington, D.C., under new far-right management, won't have anything to do with her or her harrowing medical findings. There's a sensational scene where she goes off, throwing her papers in the air in sheer anger; I love that the papers remain onstage for the duration of the show--the remains of her anger, anger that will never dissipate.

Derrick Shane plays Bruce Niles, the closeted president of the crisis group Ned established, and we see his fear--more fearful of being outed than of the disease itself. We also understand why they chose him as their spokesperson and not the off-putting Ned Weeks.

Dylan Fidler, last seen as the Emcee in CWP's Cabaret, plays Tommy Boatwright, sort of the Southern anchor of the group. There's a scene where he holds the crying Marcus in his arms, and talks him down, that's so beautifully rendered.

Jacob Salba strongly starts the show off with traumatizing scene as a flailing, sick Craig Donner. These actors take it to "11" on the Spinal Tap scale.

Christopher Daniels is delightful as Felix, Ned's lover. Their first date scene is a standout, a moment uncomfortable (as first dates can be) and yet joyous, a respite among so many scenes of devastation. And his decline in Act 2 is an actor's dream, living a person's nightmare to the very last breath. I appreciated that even in the scene changes, Mr. Daniels is such an accomplished actor that he, playing a very sick man, even coughs during these moments in Act 2, never losing character.

Joshua P. Chaykin is shocking in his early scenes as David, a KS-scarred AIDS patient. He also plays bureaucracy appropriately as Hiram and as a doctor in later scenes. And finally, Jeff Slagle adds so much heart as Ben, Ned's brother. The brothers' scenes together crackle with heartbreak, with disappointment in each other, and, ultimately, with forgiveness and understanding. Terrific work.

THE NORMAL HEART is a scream by playwright Kramer--a scream in the dark that was earth-shattering in 1985, when it debuted. It still shatters to this day. It's such a gorgeously scribed script--and the actors here are, to use a poker phrase, "all in" emotionally--that it moves at a breathtaking pace.

There is even a scene that brings to mind the recent divides with the coronavirus. "It's my right to kill myself," one character proclaims. "But it's not your right to kill us!" another yells back. Suddenly the vaccine debate, the mask mandates, medical conspiracy theories, and the crazed tribalism of modern times came to my mind. The play is 36 years old, and yet it's still so relevant, especially since we have all been entrenched in a different plague for nearly two two years..

David J. Valdez has directed a miracle. This is one hell of a tight production, and one that holds nothing back emotionally. You leave the theatre feeling punched and punchy, angry and sad. The actors, all clad in black, move the set pieces in a foreboding red light to various versions of Eighties classics--a somber "Bette Davis Eyes," a punk version of "Physical," and so on. And the cast remain onstage for the duration of the show, never leaving, witnessing one of the most harrowing chapters in modern times. As a person who came of age during those years, I find Kramer's play as a reminder of where we were, how far that we've come since, and how far we as a country--as a world--still need to go.

After the performance, you can't help but exit the theatre crying--for those characters in the show and for all of those who succumbed to AIDS over the years. It's a multi-hanky play. If you don't cry at the end of THE NORMAL HEART, then when will you ever weep?


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