‘The Normal Heart’ Finds Art in Tragedy

A raw and authentic revival, “The Normal Heart” reignites the fire that once burned in HIV/AIDS activism, education and awareness.

Set from 1981 to 1984, the play follows impassioned activist Ned Weeks (Greg Lyle-Newton), a news writer who seeks to expose the deliberate stagnancy of the media and government, as well as the complacency of the gay community. The city’s true plague, Weeks finds, is denial.

Based on playwright Larry Kramer’s own life, Weeks fights tyranny by acting as a catalyst for the founding of the AIDS Collation to Unleash Power (ACT UP).

Whether Weeks is facing “bachelor” mayor Ed Koch’s meager government aid or battling his wealthy older brother’s homophobic attitudes, Lyle-Newton’s greatest strength is portraying his character’s angst.

But, that’s not to say that his depiction of more tender emotions isn’t heartfelt or convincing. One of the final scenes features Weeks and his partner Felix (Andrew Russell) distraught after Felix’s diagnosis with the then-unknown virus. Scared by and frustrated with the reality of Felix’s impending death, the couple collapse onto the kitchen floor, covered in the contents of a grocery bag and the medical literature outlining the virus’s violent consumption of Felix’s decaying body.

Raw and beautiful, both actors soar in their portrayal of their character’s humanity during tortured circumstances. Beyond these two central characters is the noteworthy performance by Amy Thone as Dr. Emma. Commonly known as “Dr. Death” for the number of patients she’s treated with the deadly virus, Thone succeeds in balancing her character’s fierce realism as a medical professional and her empathy as a victim of polio.

Thone is a champion in her depiction of her character’s ferocity, as she demands research funding from the government-funded medical board. Her striking sternness also serves to foil the more emotionally charged performances of her male counterparts.

These more dramatic scenes serve as a realistic portrayal of the epidemic, according to artistic director Greg Carter. He describes elements of the script as equal to those found in the “horror” genre.

The worthiness of this comparison can also be seen in the aesthetic choice to punctuate scene changes with cast members reading off lists of the virus’s victims. Hearing the countless names, from every gender, ethnic origin and formal title, helps to set the morbid and sobering tone.

Set design is minimal and the costuming is appropriate yet not overdone, keeping the emphasis of the show on the script. The arrangement of the audience also helps to showcase the reactions of each viewer in dim lighting, with the two sections facing one another with the stage in the center.

These reactions are critical to Carter’s vision for the show. As his favorite play in college, Carter says “The Normal Heart” debuted to a very different audience in 1985; its original audience knew the brutal effects of the AIDS virus firsthand and they understood its growing death toll all too well.

Today, the show meets a divided audience. Because of this, Carter sees this production not only a creative endeavor but also a tool with which to educate younger generations who do not have personal memories attached to this grim period in America’s history.

This education is supported by the sponsorship from Lifelong Aids Alliance whose mission is “to empower people living with or at risk of HIV/AIDS.” Board of Directors member Stephen Black, who plays Mickey in the show, concluded the production with an announcement advertising Lifelong’s commitment to awareness and prevention. He and Carter agree that “people 15 to 20 years younger than we are, who didn’t live through the epidemic, don’t take it as [seriously] as we do. The virus can get out of control again; they (the current generation) grew up with HIV awareness and prevention, but I don’t think they ever understood how many people died and how quickly they died.”

In an attempt to “inspire,” as Carter puts it, “The Normal Heart” honors the efforts of past activists and makes fresh the conversation currently surrounding HIV/AIDS.

“The Normal Heart” shows at Erickson Theatre Off Broadway and is produced by Strawberry Theatre Workshop until February 15; tickets range from $18 to $36.