“The Nor­mal Heart” is a mov­ing and in­ti­mate drama

The Denver Post - - LIFE & CULTURE - By Joanne Ostrow Den­ver Post The­ater Critic

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.

drama

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.

Photo by Chris­tine Fisk for Den­verMind Me­dia

Charles B. Wingerter and Emma Mes­sen­ger star in “The Nor­mal Heart” at Vin­tage Theatre.

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