Ned Weeks is angry. You would be too if your friends were dying of a mysterious disease and virtually no one seemed to care. Or maybe you would be too terrified to be angry. “The Normal Heart,” onstage in a provocative and engaging Ensemble Company production, is about the AIDS crisis of the early 1980s. But it is also about so much more.
As playwright Larry Kramer examines the specifics of the early days of the epidemic, he raises more universal questions about marginalization, the distribution of power and the best way to demand social change: Should you agitate from the outside or try to work with officials within a failing system, even if it means compromise after compromise?
In this age, the play also calls to mind the public’s response to governmental COVID-19 mandates. “We can’t tell people how to live their lives,” insists one character.
That would be Bruce, the president of a new AIDS-awareness organization founded with Ned Weeks — with whom he frequently butts heads.
The organization is based on the nonprofit Gay Men’s Health Crisis, now known as GMHC, one of the many real-life allusions in the highly autobiographical play. Ned is a stand-in for fiery playwright Kramer — which is why his speeches can come across as preachy. Kramer truly was trying to convert the masses.
In the role of Ned, Ben Gaetanos deftly displays the advocate’s abrasive qualities without becoming abrasive to the audience itself, no easy feat. His ferocious energy helps distract from the repetition in the writing.
And as directed by Matthew MacDermid, we see more to Ned than just a rabble rouser. In fact, the play’s quieter moments make the personal more powerful than the polemics as Ned deals with hurt from his ambivalent brother (Joshua Peter Childers, very good in a tricky role) and newfound love with a dying man (Coletyn P. Hentz, affecting).
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In one particularly moving moment, MacDermid has placed Ned on his knees, as if in supplication, as he emotionally relates, “I’m afraid to be with him, I’m afraid to be without him, I’m afraid a cure won’t come in time.”
In louder moments, Ned rails against The New York Times and New York Mayor Ed Koch — who just this week was still making news as friends confirmed the late official, criticized for his slow response to the AIDS crisis, was in fact gay.
At points, as the cast members drop statistics, there could be more variety and growing intensity with the depths of the horror being exposed. Still, Ryan Christopherson does a fine job conveying Bruce’s mix of affection for Ned and disdain for his tactics, and Danny Sanchez amusingly twangs his way through exaggeratedly humorous lines as David, the peacemaker between the two. Daniel Luis Molina makes his worried “Ordinary Joe” character the most real of the supporting players.
Janine Papin successfully turns her doctor character into more than a series of plot-driven types — confessor, adviser, conscience, mother. And she ferociously delivers a blistering takedown of the medical and political power structures for their indifference to suffering.
The abstract set by MacDermid and Gabriel Garcia seems to funnel us to the past, sporting panels of newspaper clippings from the depths of the crisis. But 40 years on, the questions raised in “The Normal Heart” still resonate. Americans still debate the best ways to fight for social justice on issues ranging from the Black Lives Matter movement to voting rights to, yes, gay equality.
The next issue to mobilize citizens could be the expected overturning of the Supreme Court’s Roe vs. Wade abortion ruling. (“Health is a political issue,” Papin’s doctor character says early in “The Normal Heart.”) Will angry Americans get loud and take to the streets? It’s a sure bet on what Larry Kramer would have advised.
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