In 1985, as part of Joseph Papp’s New York Shakespeare Festival, Larry Kramer, the controversial activist, wrote his equally controversial play, “The Normal Heart”, about the growing realization of what would eventually be recognized as the AIDS epidemic. The title is derived from W. H. Auden’s “September 1, 1939”: “What mad Nijinsky wrote about Diaghilev is true of the normal heart: for the error bred in the bone of each woman and each man craves what it cannot have, not universal love but to be loved alone…no one exists alone; hunger allows no choice to the citizens or the police; we must love one another or die”. Kramer’s work exemplifies this inherent contradiction, especially when it comes to his dueling personas of heartfelt empathizer and angry polemicist. For the theatergoer, fortunately, he has imbued his characters with sufficient depth so that, in the right hands, this normal heart rings true. As directed by David J. Miller (doing double duty as Scenic Designer), the current Zeitgeist Stage Company production reminds us, as the 2011 Tony-winning Best Revival did in New York, not only how potent the humanity of the play is, but also just how meaningful its political message remains today.
Kramer’s lengthy work requires a great deal of its actors, and this cast is more than equal to the task, starting with the difficult role of Ned Weeks (Victor Shopov), an obvious stand-in for the author himself. Shopov, with more than a passing resemblance to actor George Clooney, neatly balances his deeply felt passion for the suffering of the gay community he loves with his incessant outrage at the inaction of government officials on every level. His frustration is shared by another pioneer, Dr. Emma Brookner (wonderfully embodied by Maureen Adduci), who is one of the first few medical experts to identify and begin to attempt to bring the reality to the forefront of the self-absorbed medical community. The rest of this dream cast, providing the finest ensemble acting of the season, includes Joey C. Pelletier as Weeks’ lover Felix, Mario DaRosa, Jr., as the closeted Bruce, Peter Brown as Ned’s brother Ben, Mikey Diloreto as the hyper Mickey, David Lutheran as the uptight Hiram and other characters, Kyle Cherry in several roles, and Mike Meadors as Tommy. Each one manages to capture every nuance Kramer has written into his characters.
The highly professional level of acting is matched by the technical contributions of Sound Designer J. Jumbelic, Projection Designer Michael Flowers and Costume Designer Meredith Magoun. Even the many set changes are handled efficiently, seemingly effortlessly choreographed. Miller has obviously spent many hours putting his actors through their paces, coordinating the extraordinary demands of Kramer’s play’s acting requirements and technical elements into a seamlessly successful theatrical experience.
“The Normal Heart” may have been written a quarter of a century ago, but its power and its message remain all too contemporary, and this unforgettable production proves once again how powerful Kramer’s personal vision can be. Perhaps the saddest commentary would be that it’s a play that has not lost its relevance. The ignorance and denial then prevalent endure on too many levels today; the deafening silence still equals death.