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theatre review

Sarah Orenstein and Jonathan Wilson in "The Normal Heart"

Studio 180's outstanding revival of Larry Kramer's The Normal Heart could be subtitled "Look Back at Anger." Marking the 30th anniversary of the start of the HIV-AIDS pandemic, this powerful production thrusts us back into those harrowing early days when the authorities refused to acknowledge the growing health crisis – an outrage excoriated with fiery eloquence in Kramer's milestone play.

The largely autobiographical drama, which premiered at New York's Public Theater in 1985, is an insider's view of the struggles of AIDS activists to alert that city's gay community and get through to an unresponsive government and indifferent media. New York's then-mayor, Ed Koch, and The New York Times come in for a lot of slagging, not to mention former U.S. president Ronald Reagan and Moral Majority founder Jerry Falwell.

Considered agitprop (albeit, superior and highly necessary agitprop) at the time of its debut, at a distance of a quarter-century The Normal Heart reveals itself to be much more than that. It still blazes with a rage born of urgency, but it's also dramatically complex. Kramer captures brilliantly the confusion, frustration and internal rifts of a group combatting a sickness that as yet had no name, let alone an explanation. And entwined with the politics is a love story that ultimately brings the AIDS tragedy to an achingly intimate level.

The Studio 180 show – produced in association with Buddies in Bad Times Theatre – runs you through the emotional wringer. It's a mark of the superb acting, as well as Kramer's searing words, that you feel as if you're living (or, for older theatregoers, reliving) that horrifying time.

The play opens in the office of Dr. Emma Brookner (Sarah Orenstein), who has been treating an increasing number of young men with a mysterious and fatal virus. Suspecting that it's sexually transmitted, she urges Ned Weeks (Jonathan Wilson), an outspoken New York writer, to sound the alarm in the gay community. Ned has soon rallied fellow activists to the cause, including a banker and former Green Beret, Bruce Niles (Paul Essiembre); an employee with the city's health department, Mickey Marcus (Ryan Kelly); and a self-described "Southern belle" Tommy Boatwright (Jonathan Seinen), the group's chipper peacemaker.

And boy, do they need him. The intransigent Ned is constantly at the others' throats over the need to spread the message of "no sex" ("safe sex" not yet being a known option). A decade after the landmark Stonewall riots, the gay community had come to define its new freedoms in terms of promiscuity, so a demand for celibacy felt like a step backward. It's a measure of Kramer's skill that, while we agree with Ned when he says this is an issue of contagion, not civil rights, we also understand the others' viewpoint – especially given that so little was known about how AIDS was contracted.

That maddening lack of knowledge is stunningly expressed in the second act, in a speech by a distraught and near-suicidal Mickey – delivered with heart-crushing distress by Kelly. It's just one in a string of great speeches – and great performances. Director Joel Greenberg seems to have a genius for casting and his choice of actors here is once again flawless.

Essiembre's dapper Bruce is so pent up that it looks as if he's literally in the closet, while the charming Seinen makes Tommy a sweet but steely magnolia. Jeff Miller is at first attractively suave and witty, and later pitifully broken, as journalist Felix Turner, Ned's doomed lover. Then there's Orenstein's irascible Dr. Brookner, wheelchair-bound because of polio, who hammers at Ned to get the word out as relentlessly as he hammers at his gay colleagues.

The play's heart, though, is firebrand Ned – a warts-and-all Kramer self-portrait etched here with passion and humour by a wiry, agitated Wilson. At times his Ned is hilariously abrasive, as when he viciously berates a mayor's aide (Mark McGrinder) while his fellow activists look on in horror. But at other times he's the stirring voice of righteous anger – especially when he lashes out at the homophobia of the day (and today).

Greenberg has staged the action in the round, on an initially bare set by John Thompson that gets messier and more chaotic as lives fall apart. Verne Good's sound design uses blasts of disco music to evoke the hedonistic era that was about to shatter like a smashed mirror ball.

"I should have fought harder," says Ned/Larry Kramer, turning his anger on himself near the end of the play. But the point is that he and his cohorts did fight hard, and The Normal Heart is an enduring testament to their battle.

The Normal Heart runs until Nov. 6.

Special to The Globe and Mail

The Normal Heart

  • Written by Larry Kramer
  • Directed by Joel Greenberg
  • Starring Jonathan Wilson, Jeff Miller, Sarah Orenstein, Paul Essiembre, Ryan Kelly
  • A Studio 180 production
  • At Buddies in Bad Times Theatre in Toronto