Review: ‘The Normal Heart’ at Vagabond Players

Motivational Speaker David Joseph Schwartz once wrote, “To fight fear, act. To increase fear, wait, put off, postpone.” In their latest production during their 100th year of being America’s Oldest Continuously Operating Little Theatre, the Vagabond Players show their audience what can happen when fear and ignorance overshadow the need for action in Larry Kramer’s The Normal Heart.

Front Row: Jeff Murray, Ryan Cole, Tom Burns. Back Row: Steven Shriner, Eric C. Stein, Tony Viglione, David Shoemaker, and Justin Johnson. Photo by Tom Lauer.

Front Row: Jeff Murray, Ryan Cole, Tom Burns. Back Row: Steven Shriner, Eric C. Stein, Tony Viglione, David Shoemaker, and Justin Johnson. Photo by Tom Lauer.

Premiering Off-Broadway in 1985, The Normal Heart tells the story of the beginnings of the AIDS epidemic and society’s reluctant acceptance of the dangers of the disease. The story focuses on Ned Weeks, a writer who, along with several of his friends and a passionate doctor, wishes to make others aware of the mysterious illness and why they may need to forgo unprotected sexual intercourse in order to stop it from spreading. As he continues to lose friends and loved ones to AIDS (which was unnamed at the time), Ned becomes frustrated at those who refuse to speak up for the gay men suffering from the disease, for fear of letting their own sexual orientation be publicly known, and is furious at the government for their refusal to accept that this is indeed an emergent epidemic in need of research.

Steven Shriner is absolutely phenomenal in his portrayal of writer turned activist Ned Weeks. He has an incredible stage presence, and the audience can see the pain and passion in every line that he speaks.

Laura Malkus gives a powerful performance as the polio-stricken Dr. Emma Brookner. She earned a well-deserved round of applause from the audience after her impassioned plea to the National Institutes of Health for more funding to research AIDS.

Eric C. Stein is fantastic as Ned’s lover Felix, who transitions perfectly from wry and flirtatious to loving and vulnerable. Tom Burns does a wonderful job with the role of the straight-laced Citibank Vice President Bruce Niles, whose stiff façade slowly fades away as he loses the men he loves, and Jeff Murray gives a moving performance as Ned’s lawyer brother Ben.

Special recognition should go to David Shoemaker for his portrayal of Ned’s friend Mickey Marcus. As Mickey, Shoemaker is constantly in character, even when in the background, and he gives an incredibly moving speech in the second act that took my breath away.

After last seeing him onstage in Our Town, it was a pleasure to see that Director Howard Berkowitz is just as talented behind the scenes as he is onstage.

Laura Malkusa and Steven Shriner. Photo by Tom Laurer.

Laura Malkusa and Steven Shriner. Photo by Tom Lauer.

Anne Shoemaker’s costumes firmly plant these characters in the early 1980s, complete with vests over t-shirts and tight jeans.

Charles Danforth’s lighting design beautifully illuminated the cast, as they moved about the set designed by Maurice “Moe” Conn, which was simple and bleak, mirroring the emotions felt by the characters in the show. What I especially liked about the set was the moving walls along the back of the stage, allowing the changes in set pieces to appear as graceful as a dance.

Vagabond Players’ The Normal Heart is incredibly poignant and powerful. This is what great theater is all about. Don’t miss it!

The Normal Heart plays through March 20, 2016 at The Vagabond Players – 806 South Broadway, in Baltimore, MD. For tickets, call the box office at (410) 563-9135, or purchase them online.

RATING: FIVE-STARS-82x1555.gif

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