The Normal Heart

by Adam Brinklow

EDGE Media Network Contributor

Wednesday November 8, 2017

The Normal Heart

America's silent (and silenced) crisis never ends in "The Normal Heart," Larry Kramer's mostly autobiographical show about the early AIDS crisis that just opened at Theater Rhinoceros.

People who came of age a decade later under the influence of PSAs and about HIV and safe sex might not be ready for the murky, terrifying atmosphere that "The Normal Heart" reflects, documenting Kramer's early '80s ordeals.

Imagine a time when even the best science couldn't yet say whether it was possible get AIDS from a kiss.

When it was impossible to test for the virus, because no one even knew what the virus was.

When the fear that you could catch it from a toilet seat suddenly doesn't seem so much like the worn out punch line of a joke that was never funny.

And when avoiding the dangers of the disease -- assuming you didn't have it already, which of course anyone might -- could mean forgoing romance entirely, possibly forever.

After centuries of society pulling out all of the stops to keep gay men from even having relationships, nature was stepping in and siding with the bigots -- or so it probably seemed during sleepless nights in 1981.

Director and resident powerhouse John Fisher stars as Ned Weeks, the tireless but obnoxious activist based largely on Kramer himself, a bit pariah on the New York gay scene over his prudish opinions about sleeping around.

(He's against it, except when he does it. Note that the real Kramer wrote a book a few years before this show with the deft title "Faggots.")

Since he's already unpopular, doctor and resident Cassandra Emma Brookner (a resolute Leticia Duarte from Central Works' "Into the Beautiful North") taps Ned for the unpopular job of educating the city about AIDS, to the limited degree that's possible.

What happens next is largely a pageant of arguments: between Ned and his loving but homophobic brother (a deceptively ordinary-seeming Robert Zelenka), between Ned and City Hall weasels, and most of all between Ned and his fellow activists, who look at him as sort of like the Terminator; better to have on your side, but uncomfortable at the best of times.

"The Normal Heart" is sort of an auteur play, like one of those heavy-handed movies that loves to show off with long shots and single takes. So these arguments last a long time.

When Ned meets would-be reporter boyfriend Felix (Jeremy Cole, who first performed in "The Normal Heart" 30 years ago and puts himself through the ringer for it this time) for an awkward working date, that also lasts a long time.

When organizer Mickey (Tim Garcia) has an unexpected but inevitable meltdown in the moment that makes the production, oh boy does that last a long time too.

These scenes -- pointedly long, intentionally drawn out scenes of people talking -- sometimes seem as though they'll end soon... but then don't.

Everything lingers, perhaps Kramer and Fisher's way of almost rubbing the audience's nose in the experience, saying "Yes, this is what it was like to be in the room for these conversations -- except it's not, the real thing was actually ten times longer than this, and it happened every day."

The stage features almost nothing that could be called scenery, instead mostly consisting of white boards full of data points and a single gurney that's repurposed over and over. Nothing looks alive in the space except for the people.

The inflexible, pavement-hard presentation makes "The Normal Heart" seem more a documentary as a work of drama, a long and stark look at a few years and a few thousand people whom no one at the time wanted to look at at all.

And Fisher, in effect, ends up presenting it as a war story, the characters less like activists and more like guerillas, constantly scrabbling for the smallest gains, absorbing a dozen defeats for every win, subsisting on the most meager support, and growing both hardened and tragically sensitive to the conflict.

Like any other good war story, it's trying, arresting, sometimes nearly exhausting, but also undeniably necessary. "We must know that these things happened," the voice of the play tells us. Because as hard as it is to know, it's worse not knowing.

"The Normal Heart" runs through November 25 at San Francisco's Gateway Theatre, 215 Jackson Street in San Francisco. For tickets and information, call 1-800-838-3006 or go to