Studio 180’s acclaimed production of Larry Kramer’s The Normal Heart opened in Toronto yesterday and runs until November 18. It was a must see when it played here last year and it remains a must see today. Same director, almost the same cast and production team, this is compelling theatre all the way. It deserved the numerous accolades it received last time around, appearing on the top ten lists of most critics in town. It's also an audience favourite, it seems. The instant and prolonged standing ovation from the opening night crowd this time around couldn’t have been more genuine or more deserved.
Last time I reviewed this production I scarcely touched on the politics of the piece. This time I wanted to talk about why the show, the action of which takes place in New York City in the early days of the AIDS crisis, specifically 1981-1984, is relevant today. Not that one really needs to argue this point – we don’t criticize Shakespearean drama because it was written four hundred years ago, but it seems to be thing to place the relevance of The Normal Heart under a microscope every time it's revived, despite it’s inherent cultural significance.
I'm not sure why. This is history, after all - and OUR history at that - a detailed account of the struggles, personal and professional, of a handful of men (and one woman) who alone tried to get the world to notice the beginnings of a plague in its midst. Playwright Larry Kramer (I interviewed him here) was there leading the charge, as personified by the dreadfully strident character Ned Weeks, played miraculously here by the returning Jonathan Wilson. So it’s a view of the period from the epicentre of the storm, not without its biases (Kramer was an opinionated man and remains so today), but the arguments of the day which drive the plot are fascinating and I'd suggest, still very relevant today.
Central; to the drama is the play between Ned/Kramer’s desire to “stop gay men having sex” as the only way to end the war, and the other side’s desire to hang on to the hard won sexual freedoms earned in the decade that went before it. This struggle is never really resolved here, although Ned/Kramer is kicked out of the gay men’s health organization he founded as a result of his views and his stridency, speaking to the emergence of sex-positivity over celibacy as a cornerstone of our response to HIV prevention today. The debate echoed through the Toronto gay community at about the same time too. It’s fascinating, though, to see where this came from.
Also relevant to our decade, particularly to those familiar with the ways of the modern-day HIV movement, is the struggle portrayed here between the stridency of activism at full volume, which again Ned/Kramer exhibits (the “maximum annoyance” model) and the more cooperative (“let’s work with the establishment, nicely”) method of the rest of the cast, which came to be the norm, at least here in Ontario.
I think too the play has especially deep layers of meaning for people themselves living with HIV today. It is a profoundly moving piece for any to watch but those of us living with HIV, even long term survivors, must surely be thinking “there but for the grace of god . .” Because times were horrible for people with HIV then, and the play demonstrates this quite graphically. Those newly infected, of course, must be made aware of our history too.
If I have criticism of the play’s tone - I can tolerate Kramer’s take on life even if I don’t agree with it - it’s the blunt-like force with which he makes his points. One could argue that it’s preachy, heavy-handed and rant-filled. But those very factors also make for powerful theatre, while giving his characters a chance to shine. Every character but one loses his/her cool spectacularly, with emotions turned up to eleven.
The production is again delivered in the round, which gives the drama an immediacy some may find almost too hard to take. The second act in particular is intensely emotional, almost draining to watch and leaves audience members crying. The super-charged cast that takes us on this ride is stellar. I hate to single out anyone. But I’ve already mentioned Jonathan Wilson in the pivotal role of Ned, so I’ll again give extra kudos to John Bourgeois as Ned’s lawyer brother Ben and the always stellar Ryan Kelly as Mickey Marcus who blows up admirably in act two. Direction, as before, is in the hands of the masterly Joel Greenberg.
The play ends with the stage littered with debris, symbolic of the all-out war (on the epidemic, on each other, on our psyche) we’ve seen enacted in front of us, While your emotions by then will be in tatters, don’t let that stop you one minute from seeing this show. Because that’s what good theatre, spectacularly done, does to you. It’s total immersion of the mind, heart and spirit. Go see it!
Buddies in Bad Times Theatre proudly welcomes
a Studio 180 Theatre production
THE NORMAL HEART
by Larry Kramer
directed by Joel Greenberg
starring John Bourgeois, Mark Crawford, Martin Happer, Ryan Kelly, Mark McGrinder, Jeff Miller, Sarah Orenstein, Jonathan Seinen and Jonathan Wilson
Buddies in Bad Times Theatre, 12 Alexander Street, Toronto
Box Office 416 872 1212
Tickets $30-$45 | Student + Arts Worker tickets are $25 for every show | Limited PWYC available for Sunday matinees