“The Normal Heart” is a moving and intimate drama
Here we are, 35 years later, and it still stings: Larry Kramer’s “The Normal Heart” depicts the government’s inaction fueled by discrimination in the HIV- AIDS crisis. The Vintage Theatre production captures the broad human drama beyond Kramer’s autobiographical work.
Writing in 1985, Kramer delivered a political diatribe as well as a play. He cast a version of himself as the big- mouth hero who fought public officials and the timid gay community as the one man of conscience who saw the plague clearly.
Some found it overwrought or self- serving. But Kramer was and is a hero, and the story bears continued retelling. Turns out it’s about more than one pushy gay egomaniac. It’s about humanity. If you know the story only from the HBO film version, which lacked emotional heft, you owe it to yourself to see the play.
The Vintage Theatre production benefits from standout leads, an intimate scale and the understated use of a projection screen to track the headlines and statistics of the time.
The opening moment yanks us back to the 1981 New York Times’
story revealing a “rare and often rapidly fatal form of cancer” that had claimed the lives of 41 gay men. The numbers climb, the official disdain continues.
The passion of the performances onstage makes the heartbreak real.
Charles B. Wingerter is forceful as NedWeeks, the gay activist ( and Kramer stand- in) who demands public confrontations and media attention, and who insists all gays must be “out” in order to earn attention and save lives— a scary suggestion in 1981. His advocacy group, the GayMen’s Health Crisis in New York, ultimately finds his style too combative.
Wingerter effectively conveys the angst, anger and idealism the role demands. He plays Weeks as a crackling, electric force of nature, pushing and pushing for the cause.
Craig A. Bond displays terrific range as Felix Turner, the closeted New York Times reporter who writes about all sorts of gay designers and artists but doesn’t feel empowered to talk to the paper’s science writer about the AIDS virus. Like many in the movement, he prefers quieter forms of protest.
Bond evolves from stand offish reporter to flirty date to stricken patient and voice of wisdom, fully inhabiting each aspect of the character. His breathtaking performance drives home the play’s meaning.
Emma Messenger brings a steady urgency to the role of Emma Brookner, the doctorwho senses early on that the disease is spread by some sort of “intimacy.” A survivor of polio, Brookner pleads with the evolving gay activist to tell his community to “stop ---- ing.’ That’s a difficult message, given that gay liberation has just released the pentup energies of homosexual men in urban areas where freedom is equated with sex. Messenger, commanding the stage froman electric wheel chair as Brookner, is soulful, raging against the indolence of the medical establishment.
Matt Cantwell conveys both humor and pathos as young Southerner Tommy Boatwright, as he dishes, swishes and reflects. Christian Munck nails the wrenching scene in which his character, Bruce Niles, the buttoned- down GMHC president, relates the death of his lover and their horrific treatment by authorities. Clint Heyn, as Ned’s wealthy lawyer brother, Ben, demonstrates the difficult, undeniable bigotry at the heart of the play.
The players sit or stand behind the action when not in a scene; the almost documentary- style presentation feels appropriate.
Under director Paul Jaquith, the drama is a taut, indelible work as effective as the big- name, big- budget HBO production and more intimate.
Charles B. Wingerter, left, and Craig A. Bond star in “The Normal Heart,” The work, written by Larry Kramer in 1985 about the HIV- AIDS crisis, is as much a political diatribe as a play.
Charles B. Wingerter and Emma Messenger star in “The Normal Heart” at Vintage Theatre.