Tears do flow at the climax of "The Normal Heart," but so do fear, anger, helplessness and--most importantly--compassion.

If there is any theatrical experience that can bring perspective to the AIDS crisis--for indeed that is how one views it after seeing this play--Larry Kramer's riveting love story is it.

Led by the powerful acting of Douglas Roberts and the sure and steady guidance of director Olive Blakistone, the production of "The Normal Heart" that opened last week at the North Coast Repertory Theatre here is some of the best theater you'll find anywhere.

Forget AIDS for a moment. The play drives itself relentlessly through 16 scenes of intense examinations of the most troubling human dilemmas--from the straining relationship between a gay man and his straight brother to the tender, breathless awkwardness of new love. Over all hangs the nervous, ticking threat (literally re-created by sound designer Michael Shapiro) of an unknown killer whose victims are multiplying faster than anyone can react with sound, logical, protective measures.

Roberts plays the volatile writer Ned Weeks (Kramer's biographical counterpart), who helped found the Gay Men's Health Crisis in New York in 1981, when acquired immune deficiency syndrome first started claiming the lives of his friends. No one wants to listen to him, not the city government--led, the play insinuates, by a closet gay mayor--not the people with grant money for research, not even other gay men, who fear the loss of hard-won sexual freedom.

Ned is abrasive, committed and, inside, terribly insecure, frightened and unloved--until Felix Turner, a gay fashion writer for the New York Times (played by Bruce McKenzie), gently and persistently pries Ned's heart open. The shattering of that same heart by the play's end is a scene so painfully, brilliantly rendered by Roberts that the mere recall brings tears to the eyes.

Everyone in the large cast delivers high-caliber work to keep pace with Roberts' driving performance. The scenes between Ned and his lawyer brother, Ben (finely portrayed by Bill Maass), are immediately engrossing. The two actors link minds and hearts for a tug of war that continues to build in intensity until that final moment, when Maass joins Roberts' total, anguished soul-baring with a poignantly real trickle of tears.

As Felix, McKenzie flirts, cajoles, charms and ultimately conveys the slow collapse of his body, while his mind struggles to comprehend this disease that is so frightfully efficient in its destruction, and so completely shunned by those who might have done more sooner to help. Through their scenes together, Roberts reveals the most tender corners of Ned's inner self, while McKenzie captures our hearts.

As Ned's hands are tied by unmovable politicians and frightened Gay Men's Health Crisis members, Roberts explodes into the rage of a man who feels that the world has suddenly, inexplicably turned its back on thousands of quickly dying human beings.

Among the gay activists, Jeff Okey and Hector Correa are right on in sincerity and accuracy in their roles as a swishy Southern "belle" named Tommy (Okey) and the slightly less flamboyant Mickey (Correa), whose health department job becomes a political tool in the war with the mayor's office. R. Sheldon Boyce handles well the distasteful role of Bruce, the closet gay banker who is voted president of the health crisis group because of his good looks. The banker's over-cautious handling of the crisis clashes angrily with Ned's impassioned activism.

Lynette Winter pulls herself out of a slow start as the wheelchair-bound Dr. Emma Brookner, who seems to be the only sane, concerned medical professional in New York. Her first scenes are hampered by the need to be convincing in a skimpily written part as a doctor whose office is inundated by new AIDS victims. Once clear of distracting petty details (where is her nurse? her receptionist?), Winters comes through with fatigued anger and alarm, finally finding the depths of Emma's compassion for her desperate patients.

Leslee Baren's stark black-white-gray set, decorated by placards of grim statistics and locally significant newspaper clippings, efficiently satisfies the demand for rapid changes in time and place, with Sean LaMotte's lighting keeping pace. Kathryn Gould's costumes are just fashion-conscious enough.

As the stomach ties in knots of empathy for the painful story unfolding, one only hopes that many, many people will overcome their resistance and see "The Normal Heart." It is terrific theater--and a shining display of courageous humanity by all involved in the production.

"THE NORMAL HEART" By Larry Kramer. Directed by Olive Blakistone. Set design by Leslee Baren. Lighting by Sean LaMotte. Sound by Michael Shapiro. Costumes by Kathryn Gould. With Timothy Paul, Hector Correa, Douglas Roberts, Louis Seitchik, Lynette Winter, R. Sheldon Boyce, Bruce McKenzie, Bill Maass and Jeff Okey. Thursday through Saturday at 8 p.m., Sundays at 7 p.m. Call 481-1055 for matinees. Through Nov. 16 at North Coast Repertory Theatre, 970A Lomas Santa Fe Drive, Solana Beach.

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