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Theater Review: "The Normal Heart"

Fred Hunting, Stewart Calhoun, Claudio Raygoza, Michael Lundy, Joel Miller
Photo credit:
Daren Scott

We don’t often see in-your-face activism on the stage. But Playwright Larry Kramer’s 1985 “The Normal Heart” is about the HIV/AIDS crisis, a topic that demanded immediate action in the ’80s.

Those were the Reagan years, and AIDS didn’t get immediate (or any other kind of) action from governmental or medical organizations, who wanted nothing to do with a disease that seemed to affect only gay men (only Rock Hudson’s death from AIDS got Reagan off the dime).

So Kramer’s alter ego in the piece, writer Ned Weeks (Claudio Raygoza), picked up the slack and organized the Gay Men’s Health Crisis.

Though Ned’s brash, even abrasive style would turn many people off (even to the extent of getting him kicked off the GMHC board), he at least didn’t allow the subject to be dropped.

“The Normal Heart,” getting a splendid production through Dec. 17 at ion theatre, recounts those early confusing and horrifying years in human terms, making us witness all the fear, fury and heartbreak this new “plague” brought.

Dr. Emma Brookner (Kim Strassburger), on the medical front lines, sees – and loses – increasing numbers of patients to this strange new disease. She collars Ned – no shrinking violet, and the only person she’s found who wants to work on the problem – and asks him to get the word out to gay men to stop having sex until they figure out what’s causing this illness.

He calls this preposterous, of course, but she counters with this: “If having sex can kill you, doesn’t anybody with half a brain stop fucking?”

The only people other than Brookner that Ned can interest in the problem are other gays, all of whom are afraid to say anything out loud to any but other gays. But Ned plows on, founding the Gay Men’s Health Crisis and trying to get a meeting with the mayor or his representative – a huge mountain to climb.

Ned’s crusade to get someone – anyone – to do something about this problem is portrayed concurrently with the progress of his new romance with “New York Times” fashion reporter Felix Turner (Alexander Guzman).

Ned even harasses Felix to write about AIDS for the “Times,” but since Felix is still in the closet, he doesn’t dare.

Ned even asks his brother Ben (Daren Scott), a straight lawyer, to sign on as a director of GMHC. You can imagine what response that gets.

Several other characters add color and depth to the play. Bruce Niles (Joel Miller) brings the “suit” approach (he’s a VP of Citibank); Tommy Boatwright (Stewart Calhoun) amuses as the Southern hospital administrator; Michael Lundy plays writer Mickey Marcus, who writes for an alternative paper; Glenn Paris and Fred Hunting play several roles each.

The best thing about this all-around excellent production is ion artistic director Raygoza’s most welcome return to the stage.

Don’t get me wrong, he’s a terrific director and techie as well, but I for one have missed him onstage for his total immersion in whatever part he’s given, and this humongous part is no exception. Bravo Claudio!

Though new antiviral drugs have slowed the progress of the disease, some 35 million people worldwide have died of AIDS so far, and about 50,000 new cases are diagnosed each year in the U.S. But this play still packs a huge emotional punch.

The details

“The Normal Heart’’ plays through December 23, 2016 at ion Theatre’s BLKBOX, 3704 Sixth Ave., Hillcrest.

 Tickets: (619) 600-5020 or iontheatre.com