San Francisco Theater Review: THE NORMAL HEART (A.C.T.)

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by Tony Frankel on September 21, 2012

in Theater-San Francisco / Bay Area


Some eyes will be misty, some guts will be wrenched, and some souls will be startled after attending Larry Kramer’s seminal play The Normal Heart, the Broadway transfer of which opened this week at A.C.T. However, discerning theatregoers will find something missing from Kramer’s semi-autobiographical take on the early years of the AIDS epidemic in New York: George C Wolfe’s direction fails to deliver the emotional aspect of the play consistently. The story and certain elements of this production are strong enough to evoke a tragic time in American history, but it fails to be an emotionally wracking experience.

First produced in 1985, the story follows rabble-rouser Ned Weeks, an obnoxious but loveable writer who disseminates information with angry, nasty diatribes about this strange new disease; in doing so, he alienates the gay community that he seeks to help. As if his confrontational style weren’t harsh enough, he also delivers an unpopular message; “quit having sex or die” is antithetical to a community who sees promiscuous sex as part of a social revolution.

Tony Frankel's Stage and Cinema review of A.C.T.'s THE NORMAL HEART in San FranciscoIt is a remarkable piece of writing in that Kramer uses the stage as agitation propaganda, but still manages to create distinct and very human characters who are fraught with frailties; they are also very funny. In the zeitgeist of 1985, when President Reagan had yet to utter the word “AIDS,” audiences were horrified to hear about the needless foot-dragging of both society and government, both of which refused to treat the epidemic as a medical emergency because it mainly afflicted homosexuals. To arouse wrath, Kramer litters his work with polemics, diatribes, and damning information; were it not for the humanity and love within his play, the hurling of statistics would become relentless.

Tony Frankel's Stage and Cinema review of A.C.T.'s THE NORMAL HEART in San FranciscoIt truly is one of the greatest plays of our time. Part thriller, part love story, and part highly-politicized leftist theatre, The Normal Heart, like Bertolt Brecht’s agitprop treatments, contains both heroic victims and clear-cut villains, such as bureaucrats and an unseen mayor (based on Ed Koch, who is stunningly outed in the play). Much of the material, especially the astounding inattention to the disease from the powers-that-were, remains shocking; however, in order for audiences to be devastated, especially in 2012, the actors must bring truth to every single moment; otherwise, the arguments can occasionally feel like browbeating. This is the arena in which this production is inconsistent.

The play opens in the offices of Dr. Emma Brookner (Jordan Baker, who understudied Tony-winner Ellen Barkin on Broadway). The militant physician, wheelchair-bound from polio, is the only doctor in Manhattan who is up-in-arms about this immune-killing disease. She elicits the help of Weeks (played with brio by Patrick Breen), whose reputation for a big mouth in the gay community just may help to spread the word. Unfortunately, Baker does not come off as authentic, but a talking head, no doubt propelled by George C. Wolfe, who directs Act I like a train speeding toward its inevitable destination. The scenes between Weeks and his new lover Felix (a terrifically understated Matt McGrath) contain the human elements that are spotty in most of the other players.

Tony Frankel's Stage and Cinema review of A.C.T.'s THE NORMAL HEART in San FranciscoWhen Weeks spearheads the development of a new organization (based on Gay Men’s Health Crisis), he gets support from Mickey, a health department employee (Michael Berresse), Tommy, a self-proclaimed “Southern Bitch” (Sean Dugan), and Bruce, a closeted hunk with a high profile Citibank job (Nick Mennell). These three actors all have their moments, especially Dugan in the audience-pleasing role of Southern sympathizer and mediator, but both Beresse and Minnell startle with accuracy in one moment, and then ruin others by screaming or imparting dialogue with wholly incongruous delivery. Mennell has an extraordinarily difficult monologue in which he relates the horrific final day of his lover’s life, but it is delivered with such numbness that only the information is horrifying, not the character’s experience.

Tony Frankel's Stage and Cinema review of A.C.T.'s THE NORMAL HEART in San FranciscoFortunately, Act II has many more moments that allow the show to breathe, but strange directorial touches continue to break the emotional build. Some characters not in the scenes are placed upstage to watch as if they represented the increase of witnesses to the epidemic, but it only serves to confuse. Baker successfully nails her monologue in which she berates the NIH, but continues the robotic and stoic portrayal from Act I in other scenes. Most important, the play’s touching finale backfires: a character is dying in a hospital, but Wolfe disposes of the gurney, instead having the actor stand, his face painted with ghoulish green makeup like Frankenstein. To say it is distracting when the actor continues to stand after dying is an understatement. There is also a wholly missed opportunity for a bonding between Weeks and his brother Ben (Bruce Altman), who share a contentious relationship for all of Act II.

Tony Frankel's Stage and Cinema review of A.C.T.'s THE NORMAL HEART in San FranciscoI can only help but wonder how this happened. Friends who saw the Broadway outing had no such issues with the Joe Mantello-lead cast. That production was directed by Joel Grey and George C. Wolfe. Since this production claims to be directed solely by Wolfe, then who is “restaging director” Leah C. Gardiner, and is she responsible for the lackluster emotional kick?

It’s a shame that this will probably be one of the last stage productions to be mounted, since the film is finally being made. It is a serviceable production, and there are definitely lump-in-your-throat moments. Some may be appalled at the government’s inaction, and moved by the men who became unlikely heroes. But ultimately this production is more about hammering home a message, and less about the love between friends, lovers, family, and community—the very thing which gives the play its title.

photos by Kevin Berne

The Normal Heart
American Conservatory Theatre in San Francisco
in association with Arena Stage at the Mead Center for American Theater in Washington, D.C.
scheduled to close on October 7, 2012
for tickets, call 415.749.2228 or visit

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