Timeline Theatre’s “A Normal Heart” Beats with Pure Emotion
Reviewed by: Melody Udell
Timeline Theater’s production of The Normal Heart, Larry Kramer’s unapologetic 1985 play chronicling those early, terrifying days of the AIDS crisis, radiates with the same passion, anger and frustration that made such a lasting impression when it premiered off Broadway almost 30 years ago. This searingly honest play is more than just a diatribe against ineffective public health officials and relentless amounts of red tape—it’s also a tender look at hard-earned love and devastating loss.
Kramer was already a well-known writer and public health advocate when the then-unnamed “homosexual cancer” started popping up in health clinics across NYC. Hardly anything was known about the disease, but even worse, hardly anything was being done to fund research, spread awareness and prevent the eventual deaths of thousands. Kramer channeled his disgust with the medical and public health communities and his disappointment at a frustratingly reticent gay community into this visceral and eye-opening play.
The lead character, Ned Weeks (David Cromer), is a loose stand-in for Kramer himself: angry, opinionated and incendiary. Ned founds a crisis group that helps promote the cause and rallies for funding, but he’s constantly butting heads with the other members in the group, most notably Bruce (Joel Gross), the handsome, closeted banking VP who’s elected the group’s president thanks to his penchant for playing good cop. Rounding out the rest of the group is Mickey (Stephen Rader) and Tommy (Alex Weisman), both exhausted by Bruce and Ned’s constant power struggle.
Ned’s combativeness is tempered only by Felix (the heart-wrenching Patrick Andrews), a New York Times style columnist who sees beyond Ned’s self-loathing and caustic personality. Their relationship is real and heartfelt despite the ever-looming fear of AIDS. At the time, the few who were working to understand the illness didn’t even know how it was being transmitted. And those few, namely the wheelchair-bound polio survivor Dr. Emma Brookner (Mary Beth Fisher), were facing as much marginalization from medicine as the gay community. In one of the most moving moments of the play—and trust me, this play has a lot of them—Emma looks directly, unflinchingly, into the audience (and presumably a medical board) to plead her case for AIDS funding. Fisher’s delivery is perfect; her powerful monologue stuck with me long after I left the theater, and whenever I remember it, I’m filled anew with the fiery indignation Fisher felt when being flat-out rejected at the hands of inept public health officials.
Emma’s tirade needs only a stage, but Brian Sidney Bembridge’s versatile set, thanks to a towering bookcase, effortlessly transforms from Ned’s apartment to a hospital examining room to a dingy City Hall basement. In between scenes, a multi-paneled projection screen (by Michael Stanfill) features dozens of headlines and photos from what little press the AIDS crisis received in the early ‘80s.
The Normal Heart is only as good as its Ned, and Cromer is a natural choice for the role; his Ned is acerbic and unsure of himself, but you can’t help but like a guy who takes it upon himself to warn the entire gay population about the perils of AIDS. So consider yourself warned: The Normal Heart is not an easy show to watch. It’s raw, it’s revelatory, it’s maddening—and yet it’s also a critical mouthpiece to expose the shrewd politics that continue to surround matters of public health.
The Normal Heart runs through Sunday, Dec. 22 at Stage 773 (1225 W. Belmont) on Wednesdays and Thursdays at 7:30 p.m., Fridays at 8 p.m., Saturdays at 4 p.m. and 8 p.m. and Sundays at 2 p.m. Tickets are $27-$50 and are available online or by phone at 773-327-5252. For calendar information please visit www.theatreinchicago.com.