Larry Kramer’s “The Normal Heart” holds such an important place in the history of the AIDS epidemic, chronicling the stark early days, indicting the government for its inaction and challenging audiences to transform grief into activism, that it took me decades to appreciate the personal drama.
The 2011 Broadway revival, directed by Joel Grey and George C. Wolfe and starring Joe Mantello as grass-roots crusader Ned Weeks, made devastatingly clear that beneath the agitprop was an emotionally searing character study.
This wasn’t obvious to me before that experience, and it may not be to you in the current Fountain Theatre revival directed by Simon Levy with more passion than precision.
The first time I saw “The Normal Heart,” at the New York Public Theater in 1985, the drama served as a public forum for a community in extremis — a gathering place to share information, console one another and summon the necessary resolve to return to the trenches.
The next time I saw it, in a 2004 Public Theater revival starring Raúl Esparza, the play retained its furious power, though the production threw into relief Kramer’s sometimes awkward mix of journalistic outreach and soapbox indictment.
It was through Mantello’s deeply inhabited portrayal of Ned and an artful multimedia staging that made history a living presence that I came to appreciate the prescience of Kramer’s vision (which touches even on marriage equality) and the multilayered complexity of a difficult-to-like, stupid-not-to-love protagonist, who is clearly a surrogate for the playwright.
A good deal of this is accessible at the Fountain, but the actors (not all of whom are ideally cast) haven’t fully settled into their roles. The dialogue often has the ring of bullet points, and the characters sometimes seem too swept up in their speeches to make their accompanying actions seem real.
When Lisa Pelikan’s Dr. Emma Brookner, the play’s pioneering AIDS physician who sounds her clarion call from a wheelchair, performs routine checkups on patients, she’s too busy speechifying to properly palpate. Her examining manner is indeed so perfunctory that it would miss a gaping wound.
Tim Cummings turns in a fearlessly outsize portrayal of Ned Weeks. He’s a walking bullhorn forever on the brink of a tantrum, and the small venue quakes with his indignation. The authenticity of Cummings’ conviction isn’t in dispute, but his acting has the self-contained quality of a solo performance piece.
There’s no denying that Ned has difficulty relating to others. Intimacy terrifies him, as the date scene between him and Bill Brochtrup’s Felix Turner, the New York Times reporter he falls in love with, humorously highlights. What’s more, Ned has an annoying habit of drowning out voices that aren’t harmonizing with his war cry.
But Cummings’ performance isn’t always well calibrated. Ned’s anger occasionally seems to be happening on a level that’s independent of the other characters. There are psychological reasons to justify this, but the production tilts off its axis as a result.
The hubbub really gets heated in the second act when internal conflicts erupt within the organization that Ned helped build, and he finds himself at odds with a leadership that has grown fed up with his relentless stridency. (The parallels with Kramer’s experience with New York’s Gay Men’s Health Crisis are barely cloaked.) But the production confuses volume with intensity, and at climactic moments the revival sputters.
The cast, which includes Fred Koehler and Verton R. Banks as two community activists collapsing under the strain of their death-haunted work, is more effective in the play’s quieter scenes. Matt Gottlieb, who plays Ben Weeks, Ned’s successful attorney brother, and Stephen O’Mahoney, who plays Bruce, the organization’s straight-acting, appearance-obsessed president, win our favor simply by communicating strength at a low-decibel level.
The most haunting moments of this revival are the private ones between Cummings’ Ned and Brochtrup’s Felix. On a set in which Adam Flemming’s video projections keep reminding us of the mounting human toll, these two scared but determined men on the front lines of a harrowing public health battle find sanctuary in each other’s arms.
This production of “The Normal Heart” beats unsteadily, but the passionate and determined fury driving it on is unmistakably love.