“The Normal Heart” is a show that weighs heavily on the audience after seeing it. Staged by New Epic Theater in the North Loop’s Lab Theater, it is written by Larry Kramer and originally premiered Off-Broadway in 1985. In this production, the warehouse space of the Lab creates an unsettling atmosphere, with rough brick walls and eerie preshow music played low enough that it can go unnoticed, but once heard cannot be ignored.
Given that much of this show is about being heard and not being ignored, it’s the perfect way to set the scene. The story revolves around Ned Weeks (Michael Wieser) and his work to gain attention on the AIDS outbreak in New York City. It’s the early ’80s and no one knows how the virus is being transmitted. Ned, motivated by advice from Dr. Emma Brookner (Michelle O’Neill) and sick of seeing his friends dying, decides to start a crisis organization to draw attention and support for those in the gay community suffering from the disease. He clashes against his brother Ben (Zach Curtis) who, as a lawyer, will not help his organization and has never seen Ned as an equal. Ned also faces dissension from those in the gay community and in his crisis organization. Bruce (Torsten Johnson), Tommy (Antonio Duke), and Mickey (Adam Qualls) go head to head with what they see as his fear-mongering and telling people how to live their lives. Mickey and Bruce especially dislike Ned’s urging for people to come out, as they hold jobs where being openly gay would make life harder for them – especially Mickey, who faces growing tension with his boss in the city health department, Hiram Keebler (Grant Sorenson). On top of this, Ned is emotionally dealing with the first serious relationship he has had with New York Times writer Felix Turner (Jucoby Johnson). As a person who had been accused of unlearning how to love, Ned struggles with his feelings and the ways in which AIDS becomes a more and more personal issue, continuing to love even while around him he is surrounded by more and more death.
Powerfully capturing the beginning of the AIDS outbreak in a theatrical piece long before Rent or Angels in America would be written, The Normal Heart packs a hell of a punch. It’s one of those shows where you can hear the entire audience crying by the end (and I was certainly one of them) and where the vivid imagery of words disturbs and destroys as much as it enlightens and creates. The use of movement and lighting in this staging – especially with the clever incorporation of fluorescent lights – is wonderful. A musical soundtrack of Queen is interwoven throughout the piece (which I’m curious if this called for in the script or a choice made by this production), at times seeming a bit over the top but more often driving home emotional peaks and themes in the scenes they follow. The use of cigarette smoke and food onstage also adds scent as backdrop to the production, using another sensory element with a unique impact.
This show is riveting and packs in a lot of deep conflict and pertinent issues. Revolving around the horrors of an unknown disease, issues of leadership – especially in grassroots organizations, fighting for proper healthcare, debates about sexuality, and divisions inside the gay community, The Normal Heart covers a lot of ground. The arguments that Bruce, Mickey, and Ned have around the topic of promiscuous sex is powerful. Ned, following the advice of Dr. Brookner (who likens casual sex to junk food), argues that AIDS is likely sexually transmitted and urges for his friends to stop having sex. Mickey and Bruce, however, see this in a much different way – to them, Ned is making sex dirty and wrong again, an issue that the gay community has fought against for years – and continue to fight. Some aspects of the gay culture shown here do feel dated – the statement “I don’t believe in lesbians” and the discussion of transvestites shows the limitations of gay culture in the early ’80s but also nods towards how they are continually overlooked in the issues of today. Other moments are clearly relevant to today. In one of the most powerful scenes, Tommy asks during a eulogy, “Why are they letting us die?” Given Antonio Duke is the actor delivering this line, this becomes not just about sexuality but about race and refusing to see the problems that are so obviously in front of us.
In the program, director Joseph Stodola describes how this show, along with the theater’s other production performed by the same cast, Corioloanus (which I’ll be seeing next week), deal with political issues of those fighting from the margins.”There are no heroes or villains in this kind of theater,” Stodola says. “There are emotions, flaws, complexities, ideologies. There are no easy answers or happy endings.” This is exactly what The Normal Heart achieves – complex issues, powerful characters that are neither good nor bad, and many questions left unanswered. As the lobby display reminds us outside the theater: there is still no cure for AIDS.
The Normal Heart is written by Larry Kramer and directed by Joseph Stodola. It is playing now through April 16th at the Lab Theater in Minneapolis. Show information and ticket prices can be found on New Epic Theater’s website.