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Review: The Normal Heart Is a Heart-Wrencher at Vintage Theatre

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Larry Kramer’s The Normal Heart, which premiered in 1985, is a sad, angry play that vividly evokes the atmosphere of those early AIDS years, when headlines spoke of a strange new cancer affecting gay men and the cause and progression of the illness were unknown. All that was known was that healthy young men were developing the terrible purple splotches of Kaposi’s sarcoma and suffering lonely, dehumanizing deaths while the government remained cruelly indifferent. The play is largely autobiographical, and the protagonist, Ned Weeks, is a stand-in for Kramer himself, who remains an active organizer. Although research on HIV and AIDS has made strides, many patients now survive indefinitely with treatment and a nationwide support network has developed, prejudice persists — and it’s crucial that this slice of history be remembered.

The plot details the personal lives of a group of men — and one woman, a doctor — traversing the mine-strewn fields of the crisis at a time when many homosexuals were afraid to come forward, because if they did, they could lose jobs, families and everything they cared about.

Ned, a writer, learns about AIDS from his doctor, Emma Brookner, during a checkup. She mentions his loud mouth and urges him to organize. “Is big mouth a symptom?” he asks. “No,” she responds, “a cure.” Understanding that silence and ignorance are the enemy, Ned visits Felix, a New York Times reporter, in search of publicity. The two men fall in love; it’s Ned’s first happy and committed relationship. But eventually Felix finds the dreaded purple lesion on his foot. At the same time, Ned is painfully navigating another intense relationship, this one with his straight brother, Ben, a successful attorney, who loves Ned but cannot accept him as an equal and is more interested in the $2 million mansion he’s planning than in supporting his brother.

There’s an equal amount of focus on the internal politics of the AIDS movement. Ned founds an organization, the equivalent of the real-life Gay Men’s Health Crisis. It not only faces the myriad difficulties of functioning in a gay-phobic world, but is split by dissent. Ned’s rage-filled, burn-down-the house approach is powerful but creates enemies and clashes with the desire of other members to work discreetly and incrementally. So smooth-talking Bruce becomes president. There are other disputes: Ned agrees with Dr. Brookner’s advice that gay men refrain from sex, but at the time, sexual freedom, including promiscuity, was seen by many as symbolizing freedom and a proud refusal to be shamed. “The entire gay political platform is fucking,” Bruce protests.

The Normal Heart is effective, but it tends toward the polemical. The character of Ned himself is complex, a mix of anger and self-deprecation, fearlessness and vulnerability. He knows he can be an asshole; sometimes he regrets it, at other times it’s a source of pride. In a fine performance, Charlie Wingerter shows all sides of this irritating, impossible and sometimes admirable man. But other characters are less three-dimensional. Dr. Brookner, for instance, is righteously angry throughout, and you have to wonder at her bedside manner. What kind of doctor, having just told a man he’s dying, would go on to communicate her own frustration, bafflement and distress at the political ramifications before offering even a word of comfort? Even the wonderful Emma Messenger can’t quite make this woman convincing.

Almost everyone has a big speech at some point, a declamation of principle, an expression of grief for a lost friend or fear for himself, a furious commentary on the public response, from New York mayor Ed Koch’s shunning of community leaders to President Ronald Reagan’s refusal to speak the word “AIDS” for seven years, even as thousands died. Though these speeches sometimes make the characters seem like mere mouthpieces, they’re redeemed by the author’s genuine passion and delivered equally passionately by the cast, particularly Todd Black as a sadly exhausted Mickey and Christian Munck as the bereaved Bruce. Matt Cantwell turns in a stylish performance as Tommy Boatright, and Craig A. Bond gives Felix an appealing gentleness.

The sobbing I heard from several members of the audience is testament to the sincerity of director Paul Jaquith and his company, and to the enduring relevance of the topic.

The Normal Heart, presented by Vintage Theatre through February 21, 1468 Dayton Street, Aurora, 303-856-7830, vintagetheatre.org.

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