By Audrey Wells
The painful subject of Larry Kramer's "The Normal Heart" is no reason not to see the exquisite production of it by the University of Illinois Department of Theatre at the Krannert Center of the Performing Arts. Grab your hanky and go.
Set in New York City in the years 1981-1984, the two-act play grips the audience as it recounts the beginning of what we now know to be the AIDS epidemic but what was then an unidentified, deadly virus spreading through the population of gay men.
Written without much benefit of hindsight, the immediacy in Kramer's autobiographical play, charged with desperation and anguish, spares few details as it unveils the valiant efforts of Larry Kramer and others to get help. As they are frustrated in their efforts by a homophobic society, "The Normal Heart" reminds us of the vulnerabilities of closeted life without legal protections. Mounting death counts and the dearth of press coverage mark time as the years and disease advance.
In 2013, we can more fully appreciate the historical documentation in Kramer's play. It is our history. And the conflicts in the beautifully titled "The Normal Heart" are just as relevant today as they were in 1985 when the play was first staged.
Director Henson Keys writes in the program that he hopes the "production will honor the memory of those who lost their lives." The actors, too, imbue their performances with a sense of personal commitment. From start to finish this taut production unrelentingly communicates with purpose and sincerity.
Scenic designer Regina Garcia created an open set where various playing areas — living room, meeting room, hospital room — are held together by a shared floor, a geometrical pattern done in shades of aqua suggesting modern, urban and institutional. Sound designer Bradford Chapin uses subtle touches such as the rattle of an elevated train or footfalls on metal steps enhancing the reality of the story.
The first scene takes place in a doctor's waiting room and sadness takes a seat in the audience's hearts as we meet young men mysteriously ill with little hope for survival. The play engages the mind as well as the heart, however.
By the end of this first scene, Dr. Emma Brookner, herself a wheelchair-using victim of the polio virus, in an effort to save lives challenges the protagonist Ned Weeks to use his legendary "big mouth" to "tell gay men not to have sex," a charge that seemingly contradicts the shedding of shame the gay movement had been fighting for.
As we watch Ned Weeks quickly move from passivity to outrage, the play fills with fiery arguments engulfed in rapid verbal exchanges. Interspersed, especially when Ned meets Felix, who becomes his lover, are tender and funny moments.
All the main characters take their turns being center stage, with stunning monologues crowning the second act. Especially moving are the performances of Robert G. Anderson as overwrought fellow organizer Mickey Marcus, Thom Miller as Bruce Niles, an uptight and closeted organizer who finally unravels in grief, Nick Narcisi as Ned's sweet and stricken lover Felix Turner, Donovan Diaz as sympathetic activist Tommy Boatwright, Timo Aker as Ned's complex brother Ben, and Sarah Ruggles as strong-minded Dr. Emma Brookner.
Neal Moeller, in the role of Ned Weeks, the hero, carries the weight of this loaded play as if it came naturally to him. Weeks is often loud, unyielding, strident, and is even accused by those he works with of being a bully and an egotist, yet Moeller's performance never gets tiresome or irritating. Moeller lets the character's moral courage power the rants, making them not only bearable but admirable.
Exiting the theater, as a kind of epilogue, the audience is handed a 2011 letter with follow-up information from Larry Kramer titled "Please Know." Having seen this excellent production of "The Normal Heart," I know the influence of theater is very much alive.
If you go
What: The University of Illinois Department of Theatre presents "The Normal Heart," written by Larry Kramer and directed by Henson Keys
When: 7:30 p.m. Wednesday through Saturday; 3 p.m. April 7
Where: Studio Theatre, Krannert Center for the Performing Arts, 500 S. Goodwin Ave., U
Tickets: $16 for adults, $15 for senior citizens; $10 for UI students and youths
Reservations: 333-6280; krannertcenter.com
Audrey Wells is a freelance writer from Urbana.