Monday, November 11, 2013

A MUST SEE Heart-Rending Production of Larry Kramer's Watershed Play "The Normal Heart" - by Zeigeist Stage Company

When one enters the Plaza Black Box Theater at the Boston Center for the Arts to view a performance of Zeitgeist Stage Company's current production of "The Normal Heart," one is entering into the very heart of a smoldering cauldron of rage and terror.  Throughout the course of the next two and a half hours, that cauldron often boils over, scalding the play's characters and audience members alike with the blistering truths of the agony that permeated the gay community in New York City in the early days of the plague that would later be named AIDS and HIV.  These two terms are never mentioned in this play, because they had not yet been coined when gay men in NYC began to mysteriously drop like flies of the previously unknown "gay cancer."  Although HIV and AIDS are never mentioned by name, their ghostly presence infects each character, each dialogue, each outburst and each relationship dramatized by Larry Kramer. Although the action is set thirty years ago, the issues that the play raises are still timely in 2013.  AIDS is still infecting and killing millions of men, women and children worldwide.

In this play, Kramer essentially tells his own story and vents his spleen.  He was angry at many things and many people - various branches of local and federal governments for their refusal to recognize the crisis for what it was and respond to it appropriately.  New York Mayor Ed Koch and his closeted aide-de-camp come for a hearty dose of Kramer's vitriol, as do Ronald Reagan, The Center for Disease Control and The National Institutes of Health.

Kramer does not shy away from airing out the dirty linen of New York's divided gay community.  In the early days, many were afraid of accepting the ramifications of HIV and AIDS for fear that it would throw a wet blanket on the sexual revolution they had fought so hard to achieve.  Kramer founded the Gay Men's Health Crisis, but was eventually booted out of his own organization because his angry and confrontational style was too much for even his friends to handle.  As he writes this play a few years after the events depicted in the drama, it is clear that the wounds are still not fully healed - still livid and suppurating. 

Each character in the drama and each action and dialogue is based upon real people and on incidents that actually took place. Under the inspired direction of David J. Miller, the cast  members are extraordinary in their ability to convey the rage and terror that ran rampant in those days without masking the underlying humanity of each character. They each deserve individual mention.

Maureen Adducci is simply transcendent as Dr. Emma Brookner, the Dark Angel who found herself thrust into the middle of the nascent health crisis.  At one point, she was treating half of the AIDS patients in  NYC. Look up "tough love" and you will find a picture of Ms. Adducci as Dr. Brookner, a polio victim confined to a wheelchair, yet who stood taller than all the rest in her compassion for her patients and her dogged determination to find an answer to the mystery of how to identify and properly treat this new disease.

Peter Brown sets exactly the right tone as Ben Weeks, the older brother of protagonist, AIDS activist Ned Weeks.  He struggles to accept and support his gay brother. The confrontations between the brothers serve as several poignant examples of the pot boiling over.

Kyle Cherry is seen in the first scene of the play as Craig, a young victim about to be diagnosed with the new and unknown disease.  His stark terror and fragility are palpable.

Mikey Diloreto is excellent as the conflicted Mickey Marcus.  Marcus works for the City of New York, and often weighs his activism against the risk of being "both "outed" and ousted from his sinecure in the city Health Department.

Mario DaRosa Jr. as Bruce also walks a fine tightrope between serving as President of The Gay Men's Health Crisis, and remaining closeted to protect his senior position with Citi Bank. He and Ned Weeks (the fictionalized version of Kramer) are often at loggerheads over how confrontational they should be as individuals and as an organization.

David Lutheran is very convincing as the smarmy, previously-mentioned aid to Mayor Koch, whose own gay identity and political career stand in stark conflict with each other.

Mike Meadors is Tommy, a transplant from the South.  He regularly casts himself in the role of peacemaker within the organization.  He  often attempts to add a little gentility and sugar to a deteriorating situation - hoping to turn the bitter cocktail of Ned Week's wrath into a libation more akin to Sweet Tea.  His efforts usually fail. 

Among a cast of impressive luminaries, Joey C.Pelletier as Felix Turner and Victor Shoprov as Ned Weeks (Kramer's fictionalized version of himself) shine a few lumens brighter than the rest of this starry host . The chemistry between these two human beings is believable and tragically mis-timed.  They find true love just at the moment in history when the wrong kind of love can serve as a death sentence.  Shoprov oozes rage from every pore, playing a game of emotional demolition derby while at the same time hoping someone will be courageous enough to climb aboard and share the bumpy ride with him  - and love him despite his many flaws and layers of defense.  Pelletier is luminous as the New York Times fashion writer who wants to support Week's AIDS campaign while serving a master which refuses to use its bully pulpit to make the world aware of the scope of the growing plague.  The "gay cancer" just does not qualify as news that is "fit to print."

There is a point in the play when the true story is told of an AIDS patient who dies at the airport after he has been flown home to be reunited with his family and his geographic roots.  The doctors at the hospital refuse to touch his body, and will not issue a death certificate.  With no cause of death, the morgue will not touch him. The body sits for hours on a bare gurney, until finally a janitor finds an over-sized baggy, wraps the body in it, and sets it in the back alley with the garbage awaiting pick-up.  I was one of many in the audience wracked with sobs at the inhumanity of this vignette - emblematic of the thousands of wasted and extinguished lives. This play will reach in and grab your heart and then make you think.

I challenge you to make your way between  now and November 23 to the Boston Center for the Arts.  See this show - for God's sake- for art's - for humanity's sake.

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The Normal Heart
by Larry Kramer
November 1 through 23, 2013

2011 Tony Award Winner for Best Revival  

The Normal Heart is a largely autobiographical play by Larry Kramer. It focuses on the rise of the HIV-AIDS crisis in New York City between 1981 and 1984, as seen through the eyes of writer/activist Ned Weeks, the gay Jewish-American founder of a prominent HIV advocacy group. Ned prefers loud public confrontations to the calmer, more private strategies favored by his associates, friends, and closeted lover, none of whom is prepared to throw himself into the media spotlight.  

The cast features:  Maureen Adduci, Peter Brown, Kyle Cherry, Mario Da Rosa Jr, Mikey Diloreto, David Lutheran, Mike Meadors, Joey Pelletier, and Victor Shopov

Zeitgeist Stage Company

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