‘The Normal Heart’ at Arena Stage at The Mead Center for American Theater by Alex Murphy


Like the playwright himself, Larry Kramer’s The Normal Heart is passionate and explosive in a way that strikes at the core of the HIV-AIDS crisis, and makes this production a heart-wrenching gem. Every event and character in the show is unapologetically portrayed from Ned Weeks’ (Patrick Breen) point of view in a way that exchanges history for drama. But that point of view is the secret sauce that makes this show so emotionally resonant. By forcing us to live these events through Ned’s eyes, we keenly experience the confusion, frustration, and rage of living through the early days of HIV-AIDS before it even had the name.

The cast of 'The Normal Heart' at Arena Stage. Photo by Scott Suchman.

Beginning just after the first reported cases of an unidentified disease in 1981, The Normal Heart is set in New York City and focuses around Ned Weeks, a largely autobiographical gay Jewish writer. Patrick Breen, a veteran of the Broadway production, embodies Ned’s fighting spirit at the center of the struggle to raise awareness of the affliction that has stricken many of his friends. Breen banters, loves, laughs, and screams with genuine intensity, pulling the audience in and refusing to let go until they share his experience.

Although Ned is the center of this show, the talented ensemble complements Breen’s performance by providing insights into different aspects of his experience and the crisis. Often these characters stand in restrained contrast with Ned’s outspoken fighting, but they are at their best when they reach their boiling points. Patricia Wettig’s Dr. Emma Brookner has one of the most satisfying outbursts of the show – fed up with ignorance of the growing plague after treating hundreds of patients she is unable to save. Michael Berresse (Mickey Marcus) ably portrays the old guard of LGBT activism, a sexual revolutionary who stands at odds with proponents of temporary abstinence in the face of this mysterious disease.

Patrick Breen (Ned Weeks). Photo by Scott Suchman.

Ned’s relationship with his brother and his lover are less explosive but no less heart-wrenching than the major tirades of the show. The close relationship between Ned and his straight and wealthy brother, John Procaccino’s Ben Weeks, is undermined by subtle homophobia combined with Ned’s confrontational approach. Procaccino excellently expresses Ben’s desire for Ned to be more like him, living free from concern over the rising HIV-AIDS crisis or anything beyond his own comfort. Ned and his lover, Felix Turner (Luke MacFarlane), exceptionally portray numerous sincere and loving moments that crushingly heighten the sense of human suffering in this crisis. The entire cast brings the various physical, emotional, and social impacts of the crisis to life with stunning clarity.

The technical components of the show are bold and clear, providing a backdrop that enhances the power of the performances on stage. The beautiful and austere set designed by David Rockwell features white walls engraved with subtle words invoking the scale and meaning of the HIV-AIDS crisis. Complementing the white walls, projections of the names of the deceased become overwhelming as the show progresses, giving a sense of how quickly this disease spread. George C. Wolfe’s direction is all-around excellent, pulling the various pieces together. David Weiner’s lighting design and David Van Tieghem’s sound design ably keep the audience’s focus honed and devoted to the emotional experience before them. Martin Pakledinaz’s costume design is utterly believable, placing us in 1981 from the moment the cast stepped on stage.

Patricia Wettig (Dr. Emma Brookner) and Patrick Breen (Ned Weeks) in 'The Normal Heart.' Photo by Scott Suchman.

Patricia Wettig (Dr. Emma Brookner) and Patrick Breen (Ned Weeks) in 'The Normal Heart.' Photo by Scott Suchman.

The Normal Heart, without once mentioning HIV or AIDS by name, eloquently captures and expresses the essence of this crisis and its ramifications. With 2.7 million new HIV infections per year and 2 million annual deaths due to AIDS, this play is as relevant now as when it premiered in 1985. This is a show that should not be missed.

Running Time: 2 hours and 30 minutes with one intermission.

The Normal Heart plays through July 29, 2012, at Arena Stage at The Mead Center for American Theater, in The Kreeger Theater – 1101 Sixth Street, SW, in Washington, DC. For tickets, call (202) 488-3300, or purchase them online.

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