The Normal Heart
"The Normal Heart" is not just a play, but an experience. Based on the life experiences of its creator Larry Kramer, the story of a group of gay friends and activists set in New York during the early HIV/AIDS crisis of 1981-1984 and their efforts to protect the members of their community takes the audience through an emotional gamut. Audiences will laugh, cry, rage and hopefully, be inspired by the lives of the characters on stage.
Ultimately "The Normal Heart" is a play of conflicts. The most prominent among these conflicts is the cast's struggle against a disease that rapidly begins cutting a grim path through the gay community. With the government refusing to declare the spread of HIV/AIDS an epidemic and the details of the disease still under research, Ned Weeks (Patrick Breen) becomes the de-facto leader of a movement to protect the gay community when no one else will. While the war is ultimately against the spread of HIV/AIDS, the spirit of the play lies in the individual battles that arise.
The battle of personalities and viewpoints between the passionate Ned Weeks and the conservative Bruce Niles (Nick Mennell) is both well acted and fierce. Ned, an openly gay Jewish-American. is the voice of passion and justified rage in many scenes, yet has a trouble biting his tongue in delicate situations.
Meanwhile Bruce, a closeted gay businessman, represents the conservative perspective that, while at times frustratingly slow, is honed to the task of dealing with governmental agencies. While together they would make the ultimate team, their shared stubbornness to compromise presents one of the main battles of the play.
One particular battle of interest is the conflict surrounding the question of what it means to be gay and the concept of gay culture. All the characters in this play have different definitions which factor into their approach to the crisis.
Ned sees the gay culture as a continuous movement and evolution generated by individuals throughout history, from Walt Whitman to Alexander the Great, and is the most vocal advocate on stemming the disease by limiting the prevalence of sex in gay culture.
Ned's approach and view is at odds with others in the play who believe that sexual freedom is one of the first decisive wins for the gay community and thus oppose limiting it for fear of losing the gay community's headway. One of the most moving parts of the play is the performance given by Michael Berresse as Mickey Marcus in which the character is torn between both views and their implications.
What cannot be lost amidst the various clashes in this play is the story of love between Ned Weeks and Felix Turner (Luke MacFarlane). Blended seamlessly with the play's focus on the fight against HIV/AIDS, the relationship between these two characters spotlights, and perhaps drives, Ned's belief that there needs to be a difference between love and sex when it comes to relationships in the gay community.
In essence, "The Normal Heart" is a thought-proving, inspiring, and moving piece that can and has attracted audiences of various ages and backgrounds. From its engaging content to the praise worthy performance of its cast, "The Normal Heart" is sure to remain in audiences' minds long after the final scene ends.
"The Normal Heart" runs through July 29 at Arena Stage at the Mead Center for American Theater, 1101 6th Street SW, Washington, D.C. For more information or tickets visit the Arena Stage website. It is an affiliated, independent event of the 2012 International AIDS Conference taking place in D.C. from July 22-27.