(this review is of the original production in October of 2011. The 2012 remount is the same cast - with only one exception - and creative)
"History isn't worth shit."
So proclaims a character in The Normal Heart
despite being situated in the centre of a production that proves just the opposite.
Like many others, I accepted that I had AIDS-art fatigue long ago. I couldn't watch another movie or play in which some poor gay man succumbed to the terrible disease so that those watching could achieve a false catharsis. And I admit to feeling trepidation as I headed to The Normal Heart
-- no matter how well-meaning author Larry Kramer is, and we all owe him a debt of thanks for his activism, his politics are strident and his writing can be polemic. And, on a purely personal level, it is always frightening to reopen that wound of grief over those we lost.
My fears were foundless. Whatever flaws there may be in the structure of the play, this production leaves no time to notice them until well after the lights have come up and the tears have stopped. Kramer's poetic and bitterly humorous words come to the fore, and the stellar cast bites into them with a ferocity that is a marvel to experience. If it weren't for the wonder of the words and the dedication of the cast, The Normal Heart
would be a time capsule of a period when gay men not only had to contend with a life-threatening plague, but had to face coming out and launching into political action. A play documenting that time would be a worthy endeavour, but Studio 180 and Buddies have created an involving and passionate production that entertains, enthralls and reduces the audience to tears while giving a history lesson that resonates strongly today.
The set is simple, the action is brisk and the show so involving that it's not until it's over that one is fully aware of how good the actors are. Jonathan Wilson gives an Olympian performance that holds the entire production together -- he rarely leaves the stage, tears through more emotions than the average Shakespearean hero and never misses a beat. Ryan Kelly, who is always a joy to watch, slow-burns from flippant humour to a full-fledged meltdown that is harrowing to watch but astounding to consider in retrospect. Paul Essiembre and Jeff Miller also get moments that haunt and impress, but it seems unfair to single anyone out because the entire ensemble functions as a unit -- there was never a second where the audience was not immersed and utterly involved in the story and characters -- acting so dedicated, seamless and passionate that it doesn't appear to be acting.
In retrospect, the early days of the AIDS epidemic now appear almost like science-fiction -- one forgets how frightening and confusing the facts, and the lack of facts, were. It was one of the crucibles that forged what the gay identity now is, and it would be a disservice for us to forget those who did, and those who didn't, live through it. History is occasionally worth a shit, and everyone who sees The Normal Heart
will undoubtedly agree.
The Normal Heart runs till Fri, Oct 19-Sun, Nov 18 at Buddies, 12 Alexander St. buddiesinbadtimes.com