Tuesday, September 16, 2014

THE NORMAL HEART • HotCityTheatre

It's been nearly thirty years since Larry Kramer's autobiographical play about the early brutal days of the HIV-AIDS crisis debuted off-Broadway, but this smoldering indictment of the failure of bureaucrats to acknowledge the epidemic, the silence of the press, and the apathy of the gay community has lost none of its muscle in HotCity's potent current production.

The play hinges on Ned Weeks (John Flack), an outspoken writer and activist at heart who serves as the proxy for Kramer, who co-founded the Gay Men's Health Crisis in 1982. Ned wrangles a group of his friends together to form a support organization to get out as much information as they can about this savage disease that was claiming the lives of gay men at a staggering rate. While Ned's confrontational approach frustrates his friends, Dr. Emma Brookner (Lavonne Byers) is one of the first in his corner. She's the victim of another virus -- polio, and is among the first doctors to try to treat men in NYC showing early symptoms of a disease with no name. Ned's brother Ben (Greg Johnston), a rich lawyer, helps him get the organization off the ground, but the long-held tensions between these two start to show once Ned asks his brother for public backing from his firm. While Ned struggles with his brother and the members of his group, and the New York Times continues to bury the story at the back of the paper, and the public officials continue to vilify those who have lost their lives to the disease, Ned meets and falls for Felix (Eric Dean White), a closeted New York Times fashion and style reporter, who eventually notices a purple lesion on his foot.

Greg Johnston (Ben Weeks) and John Flack (Ned Weeks).
Photo credit: Todd Studios
In the mid-eighties, "The Normal Heart" came right on the heels of the AIDS crisis, but with over 1 million men and women currently living with HIV-AIDS, and an estimated 56,000 new infections each year, the play is as relevant today as it was over a quarter of a century ago. Kramer's play is by nature compelling, but its power is heightened by the chemistry and vigor of its able cast -- directed fluidly by Marty Stanberry. Leading the pack is Flack as the unstoppable Ned Weeks. Flack moderates all of the fiery rage of a man railing against silence with the insecurities he reveals in his scenes with White beautifully, and truly leaves it all on the stage. As Dr. Brookner, Byers isn't on stage for that many scenes, but when she is, her passion matches Flack's -- particularly during a scene where she is refused funds for medical research. White's easy-going Felix Turner is a great balance for the compulsive Ned, and Johnston's Ben Weeks shows a genuine, albeit conditional, love for his brother.

Lavonne Byers (Dr. Emma Brookner)
and Stephen Peirick (Examining Doctor)
Photo credit: Todd Studios
Tim Schall's Mickey, who works for the health department, Ben Watts's Tommy, a hospital administrator and self-professed "Southern bitch", and Reginald Pierre's Bruce, a closeted vice-president at Citibank who is elected president of the group, all work together wonderfully, and make the most of their moments -- punctuating the play with little explosions and revelations. Stephen Peirick and Paul Cereghino round out the cast in strong multiple roles. The creative elements are kept to a minimum -- a nearly bare stage flanked by rust-colored pillars (Sean Savoie), with projections and sound by Patrick Burks, and costumes by JC Krajicek.

The play is not without its laughs, but it's grueling. It's also a must see. There's a VIP night on the 18th, with a pre-show reception, a special performance by the Gateway Men’s Chorus, and a post-performance discussion with the actors and director. A portion of that evening's proceeds will benefit Doorways, a non-profit interfaith organization that provides housing and related supportive services to individuals and families affected by HIV/AIDS.


Lavonne Byers (Dr. Emma Brookner),
Eric Dean White (Felix Turner), John Flack (Ned Weeks)
and Greg Johnston (Ben Weeks).
Photo credit: Todd Studios
THE NORMAL HEART

Written by Larry Kramer
Directed by Marty Stanberry
Kranzberg Arts Center, 501 North Grand Blvd.
through September 27 | tickets: $20 - $25 (VIP September 18th, $50)
Performances Thursday and Friday at 8pm, Saturdays at 3pm and 8pm, Sundays at 7pm

Cast:
John Flack* (Ned Weeks), Tim Schall* (Mickey Marcus), Lavonne Byers (Dr. Emma Brookner), Eric Dean White (Felix Turner), Greg Johnston (Ben Weeks), Reginald Pierre (Bruce Niles), Ben Watts (Tommy Boatwright), Paul Cereghino (Craig/Hiram Keebler/Grady/Orderly) and Stephen Peirick (David/Examining Doctor/Orderly).
* Member Actors' Equity Association

Creative:
Scenic & lighting design by Sean Savoie; sound & projection design by Patrick Burks; costume design by JC Krajicek; properties by Meg Brinkley; stage manager, Richard B. Agnew.

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