The Oklahoma City Repertory Theatre is presenting “The Normal Heart” by Larry Kramer. This show is an autobiographical tragedy. The names have been changed to avoid the complicated nightmare dealing with estate resolution in the case of the deceased and also to be more sensitive to family members. But the story is true and many of us remember first hearing about the ‘gay plague’ that was vaguely covered beginning in 1981. It took years, but we soon learned about AIDS.
The subject matter is sensitive to many because the disease is transmitted in many cases by a promiscuous life style in the homosexual community. Initially, not knowing that the transmission occurred in other ways as well, the disease was called GRID (gay related immune deficiency) and as more information became available, AIDS.
The specific interest in the production is narrow—the gay and lesbian community who are most affected and initially the only segment of the population known to be affected. Some are offended by the subject matter yet everyone is in danger. Taking place from July 1981 to May 1984 in New York City, this is the story of those at ‘ground zero’ from the first cases diagnosed.
What is universal to all, regardless of their feelings about the disease or homosexual activity is the frustration these men and women faced as they attempted to get answers and develop information for those infected with the virus and those in danger. They ran up against a brick wall of uncaring, unhearing, uninformed bureaucracy. This is familiar to everyone to a greater or lesser extent, and is probably the biggest threat to freedom faced in the 21st century.
Dr. Emma Brookner is the doctor in New York City who studied, treated and fought for answers and treatment from the earliest days. She steadfastly stood by her patients, a constantly growing number of individuals, but with changing faces as so many of them died. A victim of polio, she sets aside her own pain to help these poor young men coming to her with hope, and held their hands when hope began to die. The role of Dr. Brookner is beautifully played by Stacey Logan who captures her rough and tough exterior tempered by a heart filled with love.
Ned Weeks is the writer who struggles in the way that all writers do. His only love in life is that shared with his straight brother Ben, who accepts him. Unfortunately Weeks cannot commit himself to any relationship requiring him to give of himself that love which is romantic. When he finally finds that one person he can share his life with he loves unconditionally and completely. As he first discovers that many of his friends are afflicted he naturally begins to fight for information and help. As he becomes personally affected, facing the loss of someone he loves, his fight becomes desperate. Jonathan Beck Reed captures Ned Weeks perfectly revealing a man who is courageous, outspoken and above all highly principled. Michael Jones is an excellent Ben Weeks, a man who can love and accept a younger brother who has crossed a line that many of the era could not cross. This takes place only 30 years ago and there are still many people who refuse to accept such an alien life style, yet Ben Weeks, does so wholeheartedly and loves his brother unabashedly. The performance of Jones reveals this, and yet we see the natural reservations he hides from his beloved brother until they become temporarily estranged.
Weeks forms one of the first organization to combat AIDS in New York City. His colleague is Bruce Niles a handsome man firmly in the closet. Niles is elected President and his cautious approach is sensible but seems to reflect his need to remain hidden from public view to protect his position. Weeks and Niles butt heads continually. Drew Pollack shows the audience the horrible conflict he faces daily as he struggles with the bureaucracy and the loss of lovers. Tommy Boatwright is the flamboyant member of the organization. He likes to shock and swish just a little and could never stay in any closet. And he is the wisest member of the group in understanding the human condition. Brian Hamilton adds just the right amount of poignancy to the role, and a nice touch of humor.
Matthew Alvin Brown is Felix Turner, the young lover of Ned Weeks. The profoundly deep feelings that develop between the two of them as they meet and fall in love during this battle is stirring. Brown and Beck beautifully portray a loving couple facing tragedy with grace and strength.
Michael Corolla plays Mickey Marcus, the quiet, unassuming and very effective member of the organization. He takes care of the details with determination and dedication. When the depths of his passion and anger is revealed it is both shocking and natural, and Corolla’s characterization is superb.
Terry Veal is an officious bureaucrat in the Mayor’s office. He must balance his naturally bureaucratic attitude with his genuine concern as a gay man in a public setting. The character Veal develops of Hiram Keebler is one of the best performances Veal has ever given. Wil Rogers as Craig Donner and an orderly, Scott C. Hynes as David and an orderly, Scotty Taylor as Grady, Daniel Leeman Smith as an orderly and Larry Sharp as the Examining Doctor all perform excellently amidst this great cast.
Ben Hall, Assistant to the Director is invaluable, but the credit of this excellent production must go to Rene Moreno. Moreno takes a great cast and allows them full range in an extremely tragic story yet orchestrates this production with a light but firm touch. The piece is thought provoking and tears stream from the eyes of the audience as they leave the theatre, but they are also hopeful and ready to fight, whether the issue is the same as just seen or another, they understand and are ready for any fights they must face. Further, Moreno’s direction allows the audience to be entertained. It is hard to make such a tragedy as this entertaining to a general audience, yet in “The Normal Heart” this is accomplished.
The crew, the understudies, the CityRep management the actors and most of all Director Moreno should be congratulated heartily for this production – a production Larry Kramer could see himself in as if gazing in a mirror. There is a wall of petty indifference that Weeks came up against and could not dent, not because he is gay, but because the wall doesn’t care. While “The Normal Heart” is of specific interest to the gay and lesbian community, it is universal because sooner or later we will all bang our heads with futility and desperation against such a wall.
“The Normal Heart” plays through November 18, 2012 in the Freede Theatre at the Civic Center Music Hall. Curtain is at 7:30 pm for the convenience of the parking public and 1:30 for matinees. For tickets call CityRep at 405-848-3761 or visit www.cityrep.com. Go – not because you’re gay if you are, but because you are human as we all are.