There’s a persistent drumbeat that punctuates The Normal Heart, currently playing at Arena Stage in a stellar production directed by George C. Wolfe. Between scenes, loud, aggressive bursts of music accompany flashes of names, facts, and figures projected onto the stage. The frantic pace with which the actors move from scene to scene helps communicate the uncomfortable fact that things are hurtling towards an apocalypse of sorts, and an almost inevitable conclusion.
In Larry Kramer’s play—which debuted in 1985 at New York’s Public Theater and won a Tony for its Wolfe-directed revival on Broadway last year—a strange disease is afflicting some friends of writer Ned Weeks (Patrick Breen), revealed in shocking visual detail when Weeks runs into David (Chris Dinolfo) at a doctor’s office, only to find the right side of his face covered in large red sores. At the beginning of the show, 41 gay men in New York have died of the same disease, which Dr. Emma Brookner (Patricia Wettig) believes is some kind of a virus. As the play proceeds, the metaphorical drumbeat gets louder; Weeks’s sense of rage and frustration at the apathy around him gets fiercer, and the bodies start to pile up, demonstrated visually by the ever-growing list of names we see in stark white letters.
A Normal Heart is as much a timeline as anything else—its structure is chronological, set between 1981 and 1984—meaning time, or the lack of it, is one of the most vividly felt aspects of the production. The character of Weeks, a thinly veiled version of Kramer himself, constantly recites numbers, facts, and figures, underpinning the urgency of what is literally a life-or-death situation. Breen, who strikes the right balance between endearingly neurotic and furiously obsessive, at times seems like a man possessed, screaming one minute and dumbly calm the next. His community of gay friends doesn’t want to hear that promiscuity might be threatening their lives, while the medical, political, and journalistic institutions in New York and Washington respond with abject homophobia, refusing to even acknowledge the crisis.
Weeks’s one ally is Emma, a dryly funny harbinger of doom whom Wettig presents as a no-nonsense battle-ax, as unequivocal as she is apparently dispassionate. Wheelchair-bound by an attack of polio, Wettig’s character faces the problem head on, maintaining an even tone as she bluntly urges Weeks to tell the gay community to stop having sex (which as Weeks’s friends tell him, is about the only tenet of gay ideology they’ve managed to agree on).
The cast differs slightly from the show’s Broadway incarnation, but the ensemble is so tight, it’s hard to imagine a better production. As Weeks’ lover and first real love, Felix, Luke McFarlane returns to offer one of the most moving performances, breaking through the irascible activist’s self-loathing only to have tragedy strike. The show’s second act is an incessant collage of raw, powerful scenes, from Mickey Marcus’s (Michael Berresse) helpless rage to Bruce Niles’s (Nick Mennell) quiet acceptance of the awfulness of the epidemic around him. Wolfe allows each actor to shine, especially Wettig in an outburst of pure, ferocious rage, and although the barrage of frustration and tragedy makes for tough viewing, it’s unbelievably powerful theater.
David Rockwell’s set is one of the most striking elements of the show: three white walls inscribed with barely legible newsprint in relief, with certain words occasionally highlighted. It’s a reminder of the confusion, the lack of foresight, and the utter helplessness the advent of AIDS presented. The props and furniture the characters use to convey different locations are minimal and effective. In some scenes, Wolfe brings onstage characters not present in scenes and positions them around the action, making them a ghostly shadow on the sidelines.
As he did during the Broadway production, Kramer offers audience members a letter on their way out of the theater. “Please know that AIDS is a plague,” he writes. “Please know that no country in the world, including this one, has ever called it a plague, or acknowledged it as a plague, or dealt with it as a plague.” In a city where AIDS is more prevalent than in most African countries, Kramer’s message is stark, but even without the letter, his play is a passionate, urgent call to arms that still refuses to be silenced. This production, blistering and heartbreaking as it is, does his message justice.
A Normal Heart is at Arena Stage through July 29. Tickets ($40 and up) are available via Arena’s website.