Monday, March 28, 2016

The Normal Heart - New Epic Theater

The young New Epic Theater is living up to its name with their latest endeavor: Two challenging plays in repertory at The Lab Theater (through April 16).

The Normal Heart and Coriolanus are both substantial plays on their own, but to present both with the same director and company of actors is wildly ambitious in the best way. And after seeing The Normal Heart, I can't wait to see what they do with Coriolanus.
Photo by Patrick Kennedy

The Normal Heart is Larry Kramer’s 1985 play about the early days of the AIDS crisis in New York City. The semiautobiographical story follows writer Ned Weeks, who reacts to the deaths of his friends from the mysterious “gay cancer” by becoming an outspoken and frequently abrasive activist and one of the founders of the Gay Men’s Health Crisis organization.

This intimate and intense production features a fabulous cast. Michael Wieser depicts Ned Weeks's journey from writer to outspoken activist with a warmth and humor that lasts even when Weeks's intensity alienates him from his own organization. Torsten Johnson (Bruce Niles) and JuCoby Johnson (Felix, Ned's lover) both provide multi-layered performances in a strong solid cast that also includes Michelle O'Neill, Grant Sorenson, Zach Curtis, Antonio Duke, Adam Qualls, and the always magnetic Grant Sorenson. 

Photo by Patrick Kennedy
The austerity of The Lab Theater provides a perfect backdrop. New Epic’s production, staged by artistic director Joseph Stodola, takes place on a stark stage with neat rows of old-style metal desks facing the back wall, which become waiting areas for the actors who are not actively in the story. Having the actors (mostly) onstage nicely deals with the fact that at the Lab, the entrances to the stage are all at the far corners of the building. It also adds to the gravity of the story, as the actors solemnly watch the proceedings from their desks.

As The Normal Heart is part of two plays in repertory, I feel like I'm writing this with only one half of the story. There are so many elements of the staging of this play and the performances that I think will be more clear after seeing Coriolanus. So we'll be back for more after that!

Further reading:

 If The Normal Heart leaves you wanting to know more about the irascible Larry Kramer, check out this 2015 Boston Globe story: "Even at 80, Larry Kramer Isn't About to Play Nice."

If the play left you with questions about what happened when with the AIDS crisis, check out this fascinating Timeline of HIV/AIDS.

And for an in-depth exploration of the AIDS crisis from the beginning to today, check out Frontline's series on PBS: The Age of AIDS.

(Co-written by Carly and Jules)