Finally got out to see Studio 180 Theatre’s remount of The Normal Heart at Buddies in Bad Times Theatre last night – and I was especially happy to be there as I’d missed last year’s run. Written by Larry Kramer and directed for Studio 180 by Joel Greenberg – remounted from its 2011 season in this year’s 10th anniversary this season – the play’s title was inspired by a phrase from W.H. Auden’s poem “September 1, 1939.”
Set in New York City and spanning a time period from July 1981 to May 1984, The Normal Heart follows the struggles of real people – friends and colleagues renamed by Kramer for the play – in the early days of the war against AIDS. Writer Ben Weeks (John Bourgeois) is called to arms by Dr. Emma Brookner (Sarah Orenstein), and assembles a group of gay men in the fight against an unknown virus that is starting to take quick and deadly hold in their community. Joined by friends Bruce (Martin Happer), Mickey (Ryan Kelly), Felix (Jeff Miller), newcomer Tommy (Jonathan Seinen) and even his homophobic but supportive brother Ned (Jonathan Wilson), Ben wages war not only against the virus, but against apathy in both government and the community. And the fight turns inward on the group when it becomes apparent that communication styles don’t match, with out and proud Ben taking a more aggressive, uncompromising – and, for some, alarmist – approach, while closeted Bruce plays good cop, and aims to play nice and compromise.
It is that debate over how to best deliver their vital message to the gay community that makes this play especially interesting. Ben is accused of driving the community back into the closet and a position of shame when he urges gay men, at Brookner’s insistence, to stop having sex as a means of stemming the illness. For some, the precious sexual freedom gained in the previous decade is at stake. And it is this argument that provokes the question: Is having sex with men the defining attribute of gay culture? The group struggles with community apathy as the doctor gropes in the dark for answers to a question that no one else seems to care about. Internal battles – both personal and communal – ensue. Closeted vs. out. “Promiscuous” vs. “virginal” – which both sides put foward as a means to find love. And Ben and his brother Ned have their own battle over tolerance vs. acceptance. Ben believes that gays are the same as straights and refuses to allow sex to be the defining trait of his community – but his friends fear an attack on their culture as gay men if their sexual freedom is compromised.
The action unfolds on a square tile floor playing area (designed by John Thompson, who also did costumes) , with audience on all sides, and with minimal props and furniture to evoke place. And scene changes on the set are accompanied by throbbing 80s disco music (sound design by Verne Good), with the ensemble executing the change-overs – the flavour of their action in keeping with the tone of the scene.
This is an outstanding cast – which also includes Mark Crawford and Mark McGrinder, both in multiple roles – inhabiting characters with life and death stakes against an unseen enemy. Bourgeois is passionate and forceful as Ben, a man so much in his head he’s neglected his heart, his fragility showing in his love of his brother and his efforts to connect. Orenstein is a powerhouse, taking names, kicking ass and accepting no excuses as Brookner, wheelchair-bound by polio. Like Ben, she is overworked, overwhelmed and fed-up with political bullshit they have to navigate, but refuses to stop fighting. Lovely work from Kelly as Mickey, who finds himself wading through hell – his normally upbeat personality pummeled and broken. As Felix, Miller gives us a heartbreaking portrait of a vital, handsome gay man dealing with the ravages of disease. And Seinen’s Southern boy Tommy, the youngster of the group, is as adorable as he is chivalrous – a supportive friend and comrade in this war.
The Normal Heart continues at Buddies until November 18. Go see this.