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
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
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