Get thee to Ensemble Theatre, where an unforgettable production of “The Normal Heart,” Larry Kramer’s searing agitprop drama about the early years of the HIV/AIDS crisis, is burning up the stage.
While some elements of the 1985 play are dated, its prescient focus on such issues as gay marriage, the politicization of health care and the ongoing fight against a disease of epidemic proportions makes it more relevant than ever.
Award-winning director Sarah May motivates an all-star cast with such heart and integrity that the two-hour-and-40-minute production, including intermission, flew by. Believe me when I say theater doesn’t get any better than this.
I saw the 2011 Tony award-winning revival of “The Normal Heart” on Broadway, and in some ways, the intimate, in-your-face production at Ensemble has greater visceral impact.
The largely autobiographical play traces the years from 1981, when the earliest cases of the virus appeared, through 1984, when the crisis becomes a full-scale international pandemic.
Scenes move swiftly, aided by Ian Hinz’s eye-catching video projections on a trio of monitors that delineate change of locale and a statistical timeline that reflects the escalating number of cases and the names of the victims.
Part polemic, part drama, the play deals with real events and the characters, for the most part, are based on actual people.
Jewish actor Brian Zoldessy, one of Cleveland’s artistic treasures, is mesmerizing as Ned Weeks, a gay Jew whose character closely resembles that of Kramer, himself a gay Jewish playwright. Known for his big mouth and firebrand temperament, Ned is anointed by Dr. Emma Brookner (Derdriu Ring) to spread the word in the gay community about the new disease and how promiscuous sex can be bad for their health.
Weeks locks horns with fellow activists for whom sex, the freedom to love openly and their hard-fought battle for gay rights are integral to their identity.
Against the backdrop of a homophobic U.S. President (read Ronald Reagan); a purportedly closeted Jewish mayor of New York City (read Ed Koch); squeamish media including the New York Times; and a public health system that refuses to allocate funds for research, the play tells the personal stories of men whose lovers are dying from this strange virus and who refuse to accept that they may be the reason for its spread.
Although it’s also a factual history about HIV/AIDS, the heart and soul of this intelligent, probing drama is a love story between Ned and Felix Turner, (in a stunning performance by Scott Esposito) a waspish style writer for the New York Times who becomes Ned’s lover. The chemistry of Zoldessy and Esposito is so utterly natural that the line between gay and straight dissolves.
The courtship scene between an openly flirtatious Felix and a nervous Ned, who has never had a lover before; the shattering moment when Felix shows Ned the purple lesion on his foot; the painful confrontation between caretaker Ned and a terrified, depressed Felix, for whom none of the treatments work; and the wrenching, climactic scene in which Emma unites a dying Felix and Ned in holy matrimony – all are emotional highs. These exceptional actors don’t play their parts; they live them.
Ring bristles as wheelchair-bound Emma, whose one-woman medical crusade against this insidious disease hits a brick wall when the government refuses to fund her research after a two-year wait. Emma’s explosive reaction, venting her anger toward an administration and medical community with their heads in the sand, cut to the bone, eliciting a spontaneous round of applause opening night.
Jewish actor Jeffrey Grover captures a conflicted Ben Weeks, Ned’s older brother, a successful lawyer who loves his sib but still believes that homosexuality is an illness and refuses to accept his brother as an equal.
No less prickly is the relationship between the outspoken Ned and his fellow activists, many of whom are closeted gays with jobs at stake. These include Bruce Niles (the excellent David Bugher), a bank executive whose more conservative approach infuriates Ned. The bruising battle between Bruce and Ned, when Ned is asked to leave the organization he loves because of his brusque demeanor, is yet another emotional triumph.
Dan Kilbane plays Mickey Marcus, a Jew who contemplates suicide when so many deaths overwhelm him. Ned links the community’s indifference to the growing disease to the world’s indifference, including that of the U.S., toward the Nazi threat during World War II. In a related vein, Mickey’s anger, depression and despair reflect the torturous personal history of a man hated as both a Jew and gay.
Jeremy Jenkins is Tommy Boatwright, a gay man from the South who tries to keep the peace amongst the organization’s fractious members.
Even the minor roles sizzle. Richard Worswick plays David, a patient who has just in effect been given a death sentence. Benjamin Gregg’s cameo portrait of a recently infected and terrified Craig is painfully authentic.
“The Normal Heart” is a transformational experience.
WHAT: “The Normal Heart”
WHERE: Ensemble Theatre in Coventry Village,
2843 Washington Blvd., Cleveland Heights
WHEN: Through Sunday, Oct. 21. Talkbacks following select performances
TICKETS & INFO: 216-321-2930 or