Studio 180 revives last year's critically adored play set in New York City during the early days of the AIDS epidemic. Don't miss it, and don't forget the tissues.
An old theatrical trick for adding suspense to any scene is to subtly add the sound of a heartbeat to the soundtrack. In the case of Studio 180’s acclaimed The Normal Heart, directed by Joel Greenberg, which features the life-sustaining organ right there in the title, no manipulations of set, light, or sound are necessary to pump up the tension.
At the heart of The Normal Heart is the underdog story of a group of flawed but sympathetic characters, literally fighting for the lives of thousands across the world, including those of their friends and lovers, against prejudice ingrained within medicine, journalism, and politics—and it’s hard to create theatre much more gripping than that.
Larry Kramer’s mostly autobiographical and entirely heartbreaking 1985 play chronicles the struggles of ornery activist and writer Ned Weeks (Jonathan Wilson), standing in for Kramer himself, in sounding alarm bells in the political and medical communities to an epidemic in New York City—one that will eventually be known as AIDS. Kramer wastes no time in getting to the point: in the opening scene, set in the office of Dr. Emma Brookner (Sarah Orenstein), a character is immediately diagnosed and suffers an attack shortly thereafter. With the panic-raising insistence of Dr. Brookner, the hot-headed Ned then gathers his friends and begins the first charitable organization to raise awareness about the disease without a known name, cause, or especially a cure. As the death toll climbs, so do the stakes, bringing the characters to their breaking points and the audience to tears.
As we wrote during last year’s original run, it takes more than relevant politics and an iconic figure like Kramer to inspire such an emotional reaction from a large group of people, ranging in age, background, political inclination, and sexual orientation. Thankfully, most of the cast are reprising the same roles they mastered in the 2011 production, with the exemption of Martin Happer as Citibank VP and half-closeted president of Weeks’s activist group Bruce Niles, who impressively conveys Bruce’s guilt and conflict with a look of his bloodshot and baggy eyes. The language is rich and fiery, and so are Wilson and Orenstein together. Also notable is Ryan Kelly as Mickey Marcus, right-hand man to Weeks, who delivers the first of many devastating speeches detailing the shame of spearheading the sexual revolution within the gay community, leading to the speed at which AIDS spread, and the hypocrisy of calling for widespread abstinence. The Normal Heart is packed with more compelling relationships than we can do justice in a written summary, but at the core of all of them is a stunning performance by Wilson as the bull-headed Weeks, a guy you’d hate to work with but without a doubt support at every move.
Much like a heartbeat adds tension to a scene, Greenberg’s The Normal Heart is constructed so that the characters’ desperation becomes more and more intense, sad, and justified as the play progresses. Whereas sound designer Verne Good’s disco music–laden transitions might initially seem out of place, eventually they highlight the tragedy within the story. Similarly, the grid-like floor pattern and sets from designer John Thompson start out appearing flat, but then serve to trap the characters when they start to fall apart.
The Normal Heart is not only an important play to see for those who haven’t experienced a health threat like AIDS—it’s also the rare occasion when a play can affect you so deeply that it takes far longer to leave its characters’ world than to exit the theatre.