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THEATER REVIEW: JCC CenterStage's "The Normal Heart"

The night Larry Kramer kicked me


When it premiered in 1985 at New York City's Public Theater, Larry Kramer's "The Normal Heart" packed a considerable punch as the first successful mainstream play to tackle public attitudes toward the growing AIDS crisis. Time is not always kind to topical or polemical plays, but a recent Broadway revival reminded us that AIDS is still an epidemic, and that Kramer's play is still a bracing kick in the teeth of complacency and prejudice. As JCC CenterStage's splendid production of "The Normal Heart" demonstrates, it is also one of the most moving contemporary plays you're apt to see.

Normal Heart
  • Darlando Eanon, Peter Doyle, Jake Purcell, Stephen Cena, and Daniel Mejak (left to right) in JCC CenterStage’s production of “The Normal Heart.”

The play begins in July 1981, when the writer Ned Weeks, a thinly disguised Larry Kramer (played by Stephen Cena), first encounters a strange disease killing some of his gay friends. The disease's origins are mysterious, but it is invariably deadly, and it quickly takes an ever-increasing toll on gay men. Dr. Emma Bookner (Kerry Young), who is treating many of the afflicted men, believes the disease is passed by sexual contact, and urges Ned to tell the gay community that the only way to be sure of staying well is to practice abstinence -- advice that many of his friends consider oppressive, especially since Ned recently published a controversial novel damning the New York gay community for its shallowness and sexual indulgence. Newspaper coverage of incidences of the disease is buried on back pages, and the mayor's office is even less interested in the matter.

Ned is confrontational and persistent, however, and eventually gathers the support of his brother Ben (Roy Wise), a wealthy lawyer who loves Ned but can't accept him as an equal; Felix Turner (Carl Del Buono), a New York Times society reporter; and several other friends (Jake Purcell, Daniel Mejak, DarlandoEanon) who form a group devoted to informing gay men about the threat to their lives. Ned is so critical of their efforts, and so determined to spread the word on his own, that he is eventually rejected from the group and estranged from his brother. He and Felix have become lovers, but Felix is soon struck by the plague. By the time the play ends, in May 1984, AIDS has started to receive mainstream media attention, the brothers are reconciled, and Felix is dead.

"The Normal Heart" was up-to-the-minute in the mid-80's, and one of the surprising things about seeing it in 2014 is that, except for a few topical references, it might have been written yesterday. And it is much more than characters reeling off statistics about AIDS. Kramer's characters embody the human toll of the disease, as they recount the horrible treatment of themselves and their loved ones, the ignorance and hatred of the outside world, and the fear that paralyzes them as they think they may be the next casualty. (And it should be noted, they're often very funny; this is a surprisingly witty play.) Amid all of this is a very moving love story as Felix teaches Ned that despite all his rage and frustration, he does indeed have a "normal heart."

The JCC's presentation of this demanding, rewarding play is simple, but sensational. It is ideally cast and directed so subtly and well by Brian Coughlin that it hardly seems to be directed at all -- it is simply life happening in front of you. The role of Ned Weeks is a physical and emotional workout; the character appears in every scene and plays a large part in most of them. Stephen Cena embodies the character perfectly, not just in his articulate anger, but in his early scenes with Felix -- he is a man who can't quite believe his good luck in finding romance. Carl Del Buono's Felix, reserved yet funny, is a perfect match for Ned, and they play these scenes with a very winning delicacy. Roy Wise is convincing as Ned's brother, especially when showing his affectionate wariness.

As the closeted president of the group (which in reality became the Gay Men's Health Crisis), Jake Purcell gives a terrific portrait of a man living in fear and denial, all shiftiness and hesitant delivery, and he has a harrowing monologue late in Act 2 about a hospital's treatment of his lover's corpse. Daniel Mejak and DarlandoEanon provide much of the play's comedy in Act 1, but as the shadows lengthen, their characters display great fear and great strength. As the wheelchair-bound Dr. Brookner, who first discovers the plague and tries mightily to increase awareness of it in the medical community, Kerry Young is only in five scenes, but she is indelible, especially when she confronts an examining doctor who refuses her funding. Having recently seen most of these actors in comedic roles, I was delighted by their wonderfully rounded performances here.

Playing the examining doctor mentioned above, and as a closeted official in the Koch administration, Peter Doyle is the very soul of arrogant officiousness. The cast is so strong that even the smallest parts -- Jason Ford and Russell Allen as two of the earliest AIDS casualties, and Edward Prunella as a go-fer for the health collective -- have an impact.

This CenterStage production dispels any fears that "The Normal Heart" might be showing its age. Larry Kramer's rage remains undimmed -- the program book notes that he often stood outside the theater after performances of the recent Broadway revival, handing out letters reminding the audience that AIDS is still very much with us. And it is, not to mention any number of public problems stymied by apathy, politicking, and prejudice. "The Normal Heart" still provides a good and necessary kick, but I think this play's passion and compassion are what will make it endure.