At Salem Theatre Company’s gut-wrenching production of Larry Kramer’s “The Normal Heart,” Nathan Bertone, (North Shore Music Theatre and Theatre By the Sea’s set designer), creates a sterile atmosphere on the centrally-located stage, with its stark, white floor, hospital bed and few chairs. The atmosphere is punctuated by a full-length blackboard wall, inscribed with chalk-scrawled memorials of people’s loved ones who succumbed from AIDS. Theatergoers are invited to write messages, adding their own loved ones‘ names.
The audience is not only seated nearby, abutting three sides of the stage, in the 50-seat, small theater, but some theatergoers are actually on stage, with the actors. That proximity, especially during traumatic, tragic scenes, had several in the audience weeping openly.
“The Normal Heart” focuses on the rise of the HIV-AIDS crisis in New York City 1981-4, as seen by fictitious activist-writer Ned Weeks, gay Jewish-American founder of an HIV advocacy group, and the group’s efforts to increase public awareness, desperately hoping to effect treatment for this illness that spread like wildfire globally.
Kramer’s hard-hitting,largely autobiographical play originally appeared off-Broadway in 1985. In 2011, its revival successfully won three Tony Awards, the Drama Desk, Drama League, and Outer Critic’s Circle awards. An HBO film starring Julia Roberts and Mark Ruffalo stunned viewers last year.
Kramer’s expose’ on the terrifying spread of AIDS and physicians’, politicians’ and society’s denial and refusal to do anything to combat it, is a powerful, painful reminder that 30 years after the AIDS outbreak, some victims are treated with antiviral drugs, but there’s still no cure, despite millions of victims.
The renowned playwright, LGBT rights activist, founder of AIDS service organization Gay Men’s Health Crisis, and AIDS advocacy group ACT UP, based his play on actual events and actual people, but changed their names. Sadly, some of his closest friends and fellow activists, have died, including medical sympathizer Dr. Linda Laubenstein, who was stricken with polio. Kramer identifies the determined doctor as Dr. Emma Brookner, self-proclaimed terror in a wheelchair, whom Salem’s Caroline Watson-Felt portrays with dramatic conviction.
Also at Salem Theater Company’s deftly directed production (Catherine Bertrand), Kyle Gregory portraying lead role Ned Weeks, adds a personal layer to the “small, loud-mouthed” activist. His father, Kenneth Gregory, whose name is inscribed on the theater wall, died of AIDS in 1992. Ned’s a bundle of uptight energy, who’s later ousted from his own organization for being too inflammatory.
Besides Watson-Felt, who wheels around the stage, examining patients, and trying desperately to make them take heed to her threats of death, Kyle Gregory receives strong support from Salem State University (SSU) senior Sam Lewis, who sensitively portrays Weeks‘ handsome, suave New York Times writer lover, Felix Turner. Their growing relationship, from Ned’s awkward first date with Felix, to their loving, affectionate scenes and ultimate deathbed marriage, is deeply moving. Adding to Ned’s shock is Felix’s confession that he was once married and has a son, whom he hasn’t been allowed to see throughout the years.
Also outstanding is Robert Cope, in his role as Ben Weeks, Ned’s successful lawyer brother. Ben’s mild-mannered treatment of Ned, whom he considers abnormal because of Ned’s homosexuality and therefore subjects Ned to years of therapy, reflects the 1980‘s societal attitude regarding gays. Portraying Ned’s Jewish, gay, make-no-waves friend, Mickey Marcus, city Health Department employee, Andrew LeBlanc rattles the audience later, with his intense outbursts.
On a more lowkey level, C.J. DiOrio’s portrayal of young Southern gay activist-mediator Tommy Boatwright, is touching, while Salem’s Alex Portenko portraying closet gay Bruce Niles slowly ratchets up the emotional barometer, striding a middle-of-the-road approach, until he suffers a heartbreaking personal loss. Bruce, former Marine and Green Beret, is everyman’s hero, and doesn’t dare to risk his hero image by publicly admitting his homosexuality.
Rounding out this fine cast are Colin Colford, portraying three roles, an examining doctor, gay activist David, and Mayor Koch spokesman Hiram, and Francis Norton as Craig and Grady. Throughout the two-act, two-hour, in-your-face play, sound designer Will Demmick intones corresponding broadcast news messages, while projectionist Matt Gray and Tyrone Miller’s lighting illuminate a support column with dates, related facts, and the mounting number of deaths from men with AIDS, within a three-year period.
A closing word - during last week’s North Shore Pride week, Gigi Gill, official gay queen of North Shore Pride, delivered the production’s welcoming speech. She admitted she wasn’t staying, because the play is too difficult for her to watch. The statuesque Gill’s voice trembled. She faltered, paused, and announced her partner of 31 years died in 2014.
The pain lives on.
BOX INFO: Two-act, two-hour award-winning drama, by Larry Kramer, directed by Catherine Bertrand through June 27 at Salem Theatre, 90 Lafayette St., Salem: Thursday-Saturday, at 7:30 p.m. Tickets, contact salemtheatre.com.