Although Larry Kramer’s award-winning script is largely about death, it is only at the end of the play when we see it in close-up, watching a New York Times reporter, Felix Turner, die before our eyes after a painful chronicling of the lows of his decline. Patrick Andrews’ seamless and powerful portrayal of that character is worth the price of admission alone.
Felix’ lover and the lead character, Ned Weeks played by David Cromer, leads us on a journey through the darkest early days of the AIDS plague, before HIV had been identified and causes of transmission were accurately known. It was a gay men’s disease then, and the likes of Ronald Reagan found it acceptable to say that he wouldn’t approve spending to cure it for fear it would be a sign of approval of the gay lifestyle.
The battle to be accepted as normal had a new chapter in this dark time.
These battles for gay men, as for anyone who has faced discrimination for being different, are always upfront and personal. In this story we feel it through Ned’s tension with his brother (Marc Grapey), who tries to communicate acceptance and rejection simultaneously, which Ned will not brook.
That little was done by the government, media or scientific community as young gay men died in droves fills Ned and all of us along with him on this journey with rage.
We get some release when Dr. Emma Brookner, played commandingly by Mary Beth Fisher, gives the NIH a piece of her mind for allowing the plague to spread. The audience spontaneously broke out in an ovation, long before the final curtain fell.
To ponder the script is to realize that this high pitch drama was, if anything, a tone-down of the horror of it all. Joel Gross playing a closeted banker, Bruce Niles, who heads the early anti-AIDS organization at the center of the story, recounts his lover’s last day. His lover’s mother in Arizona had wanted to see her dying son. He takes his dying partner on the plane in his last hours. Incontinent and hallucinating, his lover soils himself on the plane and Bruce tends to cleaning him. On the runway, they are met by rubber-clad police appearing like Martians. His lover is whisked to the hospital while he dies en route. Nobody will remove the body to the morgue. Eventually a worker zips him in a plastic bag and throws him in a dumpster, then asking for $50 for “the favor”. I wonder, is this Larry Kramer’s wild imagination or just one of the many horrid war stories of that time that he could cherry pick and compile?
To ponder the script today is also to eat a slice of despair pie because we know that AIDS ravages still. Yes, there are now drugs to contain it and extend life. Yes, we know the causes and precautions can be taken. But no, no, no—how horrible to know that entire nations of Africa are today still leveled by this disease while the world has still not mustered the care or concern it would take to stem the plague offshore. Horrible too to realize that younger generations across the globe still haven’t gotten the memo about safe sex and the disease spreads still.
If you have loved someone with AIDS and lost them you will have a hard time stifling your sobs. If you have loved someone, anyone, you will likely have trouble too.
The staging of this play includes media projections convincingly reminding us with headlines and music of the culture and feel for the time of the plague’s beginnings. The tragedy is the last projected image showing the count of deaths from the disease and how the ticker keeps ticking.
Put this revival directed by Nick Bowling on your roster. You won’t regret doing so.
Let’s hope that a composer also sees this production and takes its raw material of the tragic love story at its core to the stages of Grand Opera.
Timeline’s production of “The Normal Heart” is at a new location to accommodate a larger crowd—Stage 773, 1225 West Belmont Chicago
The run is now through December 22, 2013.
Wednesdays and Thursdays 7:30 PM
Fridays 8:00 PM
Saturdays 4:00 and 8:00 PM
Sundays at 2:00 PM
For tickets visit the Timeline Theatre website or call 773 281 8463.
Photos: Lara Goetsch