The Normal Heart
With Marriage Equality moving to the forefront of the political spectrum, the past two seasons of theater have responded with revivals of some of the strongest gay-themed plays and musicals in the American canon. Despite some very worthy competition, the current revival of The Normal Heart stands out as the strongest production.
After close to three decades from its Off-Broadway début, Larry Kramer's play about the initial silence and lack of government response to the onslaught of the AIDS epidemic still retains the power and emotional potency to render its audiences silent, with the exception of muted sobs of righteous outrage.
Co-directors Joel Grey and George C. Wolfe combine to stage a flawless production, opting for a minimal set and allowing the focus to be properly placed on the words and relationships between the characters. The performances they successfully pull from the actors create memorable and moving moments that should stay with audiences for years. Wolfe particularly has the right credentials for the piece and makes a glorious reunion with Joe Mantello (pictured), who he directed in the original Broadway production of Angels in America.
Mantello, playing the role of Ned Weeks, is the power station at the center of this politically charged piece. Walking the fine line of the appropriately irritating gadfly, Mantello comes through in capturing the sincerity and human convictions beneath the beautifully flawed Ned even in his most relentless of rants. Seeing him on stage makes one wonder why he does not act more often. Ellen Barkin has transformed herself in the role of Dr. Emma Brookner, dissolving all resemblances of previous work to wear the skin of this new self. Her speech near the play's conclusion is fueled with such passion and fire that it summoned a show-stopping eruption of applause, the likes of which is not common, nor often called for, in theater today. John Benjamin Hickey is incredibly moving as Felix Turner, giving voice to those hesitant to speak up at first and ultimately providing a haunting example of why doing so was and is crucial. Jim Parsons makes a stunning Broadway debut as Tommy Boatwright, landing the performance's biggest laugh with a well-placed accusation on a closet mayor.
The design team joins the cast in an act of perfection, mastering the art of simplicity. David Rockwell (Scenic Design) creates what appears to be a textured, white-washed cube for the action to take place in, which David Weiner (Lighting Design) gradually reveals to be covered with pertinent text as a voice for the cause fights to be heard. Batwin + Robin Productions offer complementing projections to emphasize this progression and provide settings in a beautifully integrated manner.
Missing this production can only result in regret while listening to the recollections of those more fortunate for years to come. If this cast and production team don't walk away with an armful of Tonys on June 12, then we will need to raise some serious questions about the tastes of the Tony Voters. - C. Jefferson Thom
Mr. Thom lives in New York City and walks dogs, writes plays, and loves dissecting pop culture.