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Miami Herald
Recalling early days of AIDS crisis
Brett O'Bourke, bo'bourke@herald.com
October 20, 2005
In the nearly 20 years since playwright and activist Larry Kramer's powerful AIDS drama, The Normal Heart, first took the stage, gay issues have gone mainstream. From the popularity of the Emmy award-winning television show Will & Grace to the national debate over gay marriage, few topics remain taboo.

But, to quote often-quoted philosopher George Santayana, "those who cannot learn from history are doomed to repeat it."

That sentiment lies at the heart of The Public Theatre of South Florida's staging of Kramer's play. The production is a poignant reminder of the way gays have been treated as second-class citizens, labeled as sick and branded as degenerate sex fiends who deserve whatever pestilence they suffer.

Strangely, the production makes little attempt to plumb the subtext for more current subject matter. A subtler reading would illuminate the elements (safe sex and gay marriage) that might make the play more instructive for life in 2005.

While by the conclusion there were few dry eyes in the audience, the Public's nearly three hour-long staging is heavy on anger and light on finesse.

The play is semi-autobiographical. The central character, Ned Weeks (Michael McKeever), is a stand-in for Kramer during the period between 1980 and 1984 when an unamed virus began claiming the lives of gay men. Founding the Gay Men's Health Crisis in 1981, Kramer identified the need for an organization to educate gay men about what little was known and to lobby public officials for research and testing.

The story follows Ned as he clashes with other members of the organization and the gay community over how to raise awareness (he wants to be loud and proud, while many in the group are closeted or fear repercussions), fights city hall to get officialdom to acknowledge the problem, and rails at the press, his loved ones, his co-workers, his brother, himself and anyone eles he can find to yell at about how they aren't doing enough.

Kramer's passionate championing of AIDS awareness and the gay movement got him labeled as everything from a visionary hero to a narcissistic blowhard with good intentions but bad manners to an fame-seeking opportunist. It's not hard to see why.

A veteran actor, McKeever's rendering of Ned is natural and strong. He is eminently believable and commands attention every time he is onstage. Scott Wells, Tobin Strader and Doug Williford do a nice job as the other founding members of the organization. Williford in particular makes the most of his short time on stage, delivering with subtle Southern charm the few moments of levity in an otherwise dark play.

Because of the close relationships the characters have with Ned, the scenes with Jack Frank Sigman, who plays Ned's brother Ben, and Mark A. Harmon, who plays Ned's lover Felix Turner, should be the most poignant. Instead, they are uneven -- absolutely heartbreaking at times, dead flat at others. The acting is not the problem: Both men deliver solid performances. It's in the interpretation of the scenes and in the staging that director Steven A. Chambers still has some edges to smooth.

The Emma Brookner character, who is based on Dr. Linda Laubenstein of New York University Center (she was also a passionate voice for awareness and research), is played by Sally Bondi. Bondi has the unenviable job of playing the character that sees the least development throughout the play. She's angry at the start, she's angry through the middle and she's angry at the end. It's a one-dimensional performance delivered at high decibels.

Twenty years ago the play was a powerful indictment of inequality. While the Public's production seems content simply to look back, to truly appreciate The Normal Heart today, you needn't look much farther than into your own.

IF YOU GO

What: The Public Theatre of South Florida's production of The Normal Heart

Where: Soref JCC, 6501 W. Sunrise Blvd., Plantation

When: through Nov. 6; 8 p.m. Thursday and Saturday, 2 p.m. Saturday and Sunday

Cost: $22, $20 seniors, $12 students

Info: 954-537-3648



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