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Arena Stage The Normal Heart

By • Jun 18th, 2012 • Category: Reviews
The Normal Heart
Arena Stage
Arena Stage-Kreeger, Washington DC
Through July 29th
2:30 with intermission
$40-$109 (+ Fees)
Reviewed June 14th, 2012

When I was in college, my most beloved professor was a gay man who’d lived in New York City in the early ’80’s. He told us that when he was asked if he ever saw any of his friends from New York, he always responded the same way: “I can’t, they’re all dead.” This response confused most people, but my LGBT studies classmates and I all (thankfully) understood immediately. Even though we couldn’t completely empathize because we were all born during the final years of the Reagan administration, my classmates and I all understood that our dear teacher was referring to the AIDS epidemic that claimed the lives of thousands of members of our community while the government stayed silent. During the first years, nobody knew what this strange virus was – only that the onslaught seemed to target gay men. When politicians turned blind eyes to the decimation of an already marginalized community, a few extraordinarily brave individuals began a movement to empower those who had no voice.

Playwright Larry Kramer was one such individual, and his theatrical magnum opus The Normal Heart helped to open the world’s eyes to the ever-growing menace (I say theatrical magnum opus so as not to impugn Mr. Kramer’s work as an LGBT activist). Since its off-Broadway premier in 1985, The Normal Heart has been considered the first major work to address the subject of HIV/AIDS (though the scourge’s name is fittingly never mentioned in the script) and its accolades have been many. Numerous professional and amateur productions have been mounted over the past generation, and the play was given its first Broadway run in the fall of 2011. This Tony® Award-winning production has been remounted with glorious valor at Arena Stage and I had the pleasure, nay – honor, of attending the opening night performance.

Director George C. Wolfe masterfully helmed this production; he presented it in a way that paid homage to those who survived those terrible times without seeming dated. The use of projections made changes of locale and time readily understandable and added a chilling bit of modernism that really resonated with me. At times I felt that the acting was a little over the top, but I also feel that Mr. Wolfe adroitly chose to give a light-hearted undercurrent to a very somber show. The sorrows were deftly balanced with humor to advance the message of hope evident in every word of Mr. Kramer’s script. The choices with which I personally disagreed took nothing away from my enjoyment of the overall production, and I applaud Mr. Wolfe for his unique ability to harness and unleash the power of this show at will.

The performances of the ensemble were first-rate across the board. Patrick Breen’s stubborn yet compassionate portrayal of indefatigable agitator and activist Ned Weeks was iconic. Mr. Breen gave depth and a beautifully flawed humanity to a character that could otherwise have seemed one-dimensional. As an actor, I feel that I learned quite a bit simply by watching his outstanding performance. As Stonewall veteran Mickey Marcus, Michael Berresse was awe-inspiring. His comic timing and overall likability made his moment of weakness all the more heartbreaking. Mr. Berresse always embodied Mickey with a quiet strength beneath all of his actions, and it was a delight to watch. As the lone female of the group, Patricia Wettig was nothing short of a lightning rod. Her desperate but nigh-unshakable Dr. Emma Brookner was a powerhouse from the first scene onward. While I felt like her fiery passion from the outset left little room for the character to grow, I was ready to bound to my feet after her revolutionary monologue. The chemistry shared by the ensemble was remarkable, and the standing ovation they received that night was well-earned and greatly deserved.

During the intermission, I happened to overhear a conversation that I couldn’t resist joining. I met two wonderful men who’d been fighting HIV/AIDS for many years, one of whom actually shared a jail cell with Mr. Kramer. They had been arrested for protesting by police officers wearing yellow gloves as though the protestors were lepers – prompting the chant “you’ll see it on the news, your gloves don’t match your shoes.” They indulged my curiosity and gave me their first-hand accounts of the injustices over which they triumphed. More importantly, they helped to pass on a piece of LGBT history I might never have known. I will always be grateful for that brief interaction, and for the indomitable strength of people like Philip, Michael, and Mr. Larry Kramer.

The Normal Heart runs two hours and thirty minutes with a fifteen minute intermission. Strong language and disturbing depictions of the horrors of HIV/AIDS render this show inappropriate for young children, but I would highly recommend it for high school students. It is a lesson in American history that you are not likely to learn in school, but one that still so desperately needs to be shared. This show centers around a political movement whose mantra was “Silence = Death,” and Arena Stage’s production will doubtlessly inspire conversations that can end the silence and save lives. That, to me, is the true power and beauty of The Normal Heart.

Photo Gallery

Patricia Wettig as Dr. Emma Brookner and Patrick Breen as Ned Weeks Christopher J. Hanke as Tommy Boatwright and Patrick Breen as Ned Weeks
Patricia Wettig as Dr. Emma Brookner and Patrick Breen as Ned Weeks
Christopher J. Hanke as Tommy Boatwright and Patrick Breen as Ned Weeks
Patrick Breen as Ned Weeks and Luke MacFarlane as Felix Turner Tom Berklund as Grady, Christopher J. Hanke as Tommy Boatwright, Michael Berresse as Mickey Marcus and Nick Mennell as Bruce Niles
Patrick Breen as Ned Weeks and Luke MacFarlane as Felix Turner
Tom Berklund as Grady, Christopher J. Hanke as Tommy Boatwright, Michael Berresse as Mickey Marcus and Nick Mennell as Bruce Niles
Patrick Breen as Ned Weeks and Luke MacFarlane as Felix Turner, with Tom Berklund as Grady The cast
Patrick Breen as Ned Weeks and Luke MacFarlane as Felix Turner, with Tom Berklund as Grady
The cast

Photos by Scott Suchman

Cast

(in order of appearance)

  • Craig Donner/Grady: Tom Berklund
  • Mickey Marcus: Michael Berresse
  • Ned Weeks: Patrick Breen
  • David: Chris Dinolfo
  • Dr. Emma Brookner: Patricia Wettig
  • Bruce Niles: Nick Mennell
  • Felix Turner: Luke MacFarlane
  • Ben Weeks: John Procaccino
  • Tommy Boatwright: Christopher J. Hanke
  • Hiram Keebler/Examining Doctor: Jon Levenson

Creative Team

  • Playwright: Larry Kramer
  • Director: George C. Wolfe
  • Set Designer: David Rockwell
  • Costume Designer: Martin Pakledinaz
  • Lighting Designer: David Weiner
  • Original Music/Sound Designer: David Van Tieghem
  • Projection Design: Batwin + Robin Productions
  • Restaging Director: Leah C. Gardiner
  • Stage Manager: Amber Dickerson
  • Asst. Stage Manager: Kurt Hall
  • General/Production Manager: Ian Pool
  • Technical Director: Scott Schreck
  • Property Master: Chuck Fox
  • Master Electrician: Christopher V. Lewton
  • Master Sound Technician: Timothy H. Thompson
  • Costume Director: Joseph P. Salasovich
  • Artistic Associate and Casting Director: Daniel Pruksarnukul
  • Casting: Telsey + Company, Will Cantler, CSA

Disclaimer: Arena Stage provided two complimentary media tickets to ShowBizRadio for this review.

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, a native of Frederick, MD, has been heavily involved in every single facet of theatre for the majority of his life. He has been seen on stages in Frederick, Charles Town, WV, Kensington, MD, Greenbelt, MD, Gettysburg, PA, and many others. A two-time WATCH Award nominee, Eric has over 80 shows to his credit and is a double-graduate of Frederick County's Arts and Communications Academy in music and theatre. He holds a Bachelor of Arts degree in Communication from the University of Maryland and currently lives in Frederick.

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