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THE NORMAL HEART @ Ensemble Theatre

THE NORMAL HEART @ Ensemble: emotionally moving, expertly performed

Roy Berko

(Member, American Theatre Critics Association)

Each night during the 2011 Broadway revival of THE NORMAL HEART, Larry Kramer, the author of the script, stood outside the theatre to distribute a letter to members of the audience.

The letter stated:  “Thank you for coming to see our play.  Please know that everything in THE NORMAL HEART happened. These were and are real people who lived and spoke and died, and are presented here as best I could.  Several more have died since, including [the character named] Bruce, whose name was Paul Popham, and Tommy, whose name was Rodger McFarlane and who became my best friend, and Emma, whose name was Dr. Linda Laubenstein of New York University Medical Center. She died after a return bout of polio and another trip to an iron lung. Rodger, after building three gay/AIDS agencies from the ground up, committed suicide in despair.  On his deathbed at Memorial, Paul called me (we’d not spoken since our last fight in this play) and told me to never stop fighting.”  (To read a copy of the letter go to:

Reading that letter sums up the power and emotional development of this 1980s play about AIDS.  1980?  Why go back and dig up all that stuff?  The times have changed.  The diagnosis of AIDS is no longer a death sentence.  There is the cocktail.  It appears that a vaccine is on the horizon.  Oh, how wrong that thinking is.  Without Larry Kramer, and his band of activists, organizations such as The New York Times and The Center for Disease Control would not have acted.  The money for research for defining and dealing with the illness would never have come forth from the homophobic President, Ronald Reagan, or the purported closeted gay Mayor of New York.  This is history, real history, which needs to be kept alive.  Theatre represents the era from which it comes, that the 1980s is the era of AIDS.

As a counselor at both the Whitman Walker and Chase Braxton clinics in Washington DC and Baltimore, during the height of the AIDS crisis, I can attest to the frustration and sadness of sharing with those tested that they had been confirmed with the disease.  Counseling gave way to making funeral plans, dealing with sharing the news with parents, family and friends, making arrangements for Meals on Wheels, and securing volunteers to help when hospitals, social service agencies, and the various governments cast a blind eye, or refused to give service to those with the disease.  This experience parallels the machinations of Kramer’s script.

The play, which originally opened off-Broadway in 1985, was revived in 2004, and again in 2011.  The later production, which recently ended its run, received last year’s Tony as Best Revival of a Play.  Largely autobiographical, the well written script is filled with rage, exploration, and, believe it or not, humor.

It centers on one man, Larry Kramer (named Ned Weeks in the play), and his attempt to break a conspiracy of silence, indifference, hostility, and homophobia, and to gain acknowledgement and funding as his friends mysteriously die.  His “enemies” are not only the political establishment, but the conservative and fearful members of the gay community, who refused to speak loudly in order to protect their jobs and their privacy.  Weeks, a gay Jew, preferred, and still prefers, loud public confrontations to quiet diplomacy.  That difference of how to confront the plague is at the heart of the history of AIDS and the play.

Ensemble’s production, under the razor sharp eye of Sarah May, is mesmerizing.  It’s long, but never fails to grab and hold the viewer’s attention.  The performances are top notch.

Brian Zoldessy gives an award winning performance as Ned.  He is Ned, he doesn’t portray Ned.  Not for an instant does he waiver from a clear characterization.  He is properly enraged, shy and driven.  Wow!

Derdriu Ring as Dr. Brookner, the New York doctor who first confronted the illness and then fought the brave battle, against horrific odds, to treat and do research, is Zoldessy’s equal in creating a real person.

Scott Esposito is excellent as Felix, the lover who helps Ned get in touch with feelings other than guilt and rage.

Jeremy Jenkins (Tommy), Dan Kilbane (Mickey), and David Bugher (Bruce), members of the AIDS Task Force, and Jeffrey Grover as Ben, Ned’s brother, all are character correct.  Richard Worswick and Benjamin Gregg, who each portray three roles, complete the excellent cast.

After seeing the show, it is impossible to read Kramer’s 2011 letter and not be incensed by the lack of action of governments, including our own, regarding the epidemic.  It heightens the already negative thoughts about the money gouging of pharmaceutical companies.  It shockingly illuminates the awareness of the number who have died because of the lack of social action and of those who were denied service until it was realized that AIDS was not a gay disease, but a universal illness.

CAPSULE JUDGEMENT: THE NORMAL HEART is an absolute must see production.  The message is important.  The quality of the script impressive.  The production is one of the highlights of this theatrical season!

There are talkbacks scheduled to discuss the present status of AIDS.  These will be done by local experts in the field on 9/30, 10/5, 10/14, and 10/19.

Larry Kramer recently appeared on Dee Perry’s AROUND NOON (WCPN-FM).  To hear the interview click on this link