Saturday, August 23, 2014

Applause! Applause! Review of The Normal Heart at The EastLine Theatre by Dr. Thomas Robert Stevens

This review of The Normal Heart at The EastLine Theatre was written by Dr. Thomas Robert Stevens and published in Volume X, Issue 4 (2014) of the online edition of Applause! Applause!

The Normal Heart
The EastLine Theatre 
2123 Wantagh Avenue
Wantagh, New York 11793
Reviewed 8/22/14

Larry Kramer's The Normal Heart was first produced by Joseph Papp Off-Broadway at The Public Theater on April 21, 1985 and ran for 294 performances. There was a 2004 Off-Broadway revival at the Public and on April 19, 2011, the show had its Broadway premiere for a limited 12-week engagement at the Golden Theatre. It won a Tony Award for Best Revival of a Play. A film adaptation debuted on the HBO premium pay cable channel on May 25, 2014. 

The play focuses on the rise of the HIV/AIDS crisis in New York City between 1981 and 1984 and the struggle of some early gay activists to obtain funding for research and treatment. The Normal Heart is a largely autobiographical play by Larry Kramer, who helped found several AIDS-activism groups, including Gay Men's Health Crisis (GMHC) and AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power (ACT UP). After most performances of the 2011 revival, Kramer personally passed out a dramaturgical flyer detailing some of the real stories behind the play's characters. Kramer wrote that "the character 'Bruce' was based on Paul Popham, the president of the GMHC from 1981 until 1985; 'Tommy' was based on Rodger McFarlane, who was Executive Director of GMHC and a founding member of ACT UP and Broadway Cares; and 'Emma' was modeled after Dr. Linda Laubenstein, who treated some of the first New York cases of what was later known as AIDS." It was clear the character 'Ned' was based on Kramer's own experiences.

The Normal Heart clearly reflects the pain, frustrations and loss suffered by those who had or knew someone who had the as yet undefined virus that attacked the immune systems of mostly gay men. The struggles for recognition of their plight and to obtain funding for research is interesting all on its own. But for me, this play succeeds best in showing the divisions within the gay community with respect to strategy and historical perspective. While Ned, the Larry Kramer character, wants to warn the gay community to stop having promiscuous sex, Mickey, who works for the New York City Board of Health and is a veteran gay activist, argues that after being closeted for so many years, gay liberation means having gay sex without shame and that it is "the only thing that makes us different." Ned, on the other hand, argues that the culture gays have brought to this world for thousands of years since Socrates and Aristotle is very substantive and that "we need to be a proud united community willing to fight back" and that "gay culture needs to be defined by something more than just our cocks." There are other strategic differences featured in this play such as those activists who want to be more accommodating and work within the system versus those willing to take to the streets. Perhaps, as the character Tommy says, "all movements, to succeed, need both." Larry Kramer's character Ned told his brother the new organization, Gay Men's Health Crisis (GMHC), would be a cross between the League of Women Voters and the United States Marines.

There are no weak links in this cast. All the actors performed admirably and put their heart and soul into their respective roles. Most impressive were Michael H. Carlin, who played Mickey, and Matt Rosenberg, who was Tommy Boatwright. Both accurately portrayed the perspectives and mannerisms of their characters so well that I felt I had met individuals similar to them many times throughout the years. Excellent performances! Evan Donnellan was so strong as Ned that he gave me new insight into Larry Kramer's motivations and activism. His performance is a tour de force. Kevin Kelly was Felix, Ned's lover, and Kevin Shaw played Bruce, Ned's nemesis at GMHC. Both handled their roles extremely well. Other cast members contributing to making this play a delight to watch were Michael Schlapp, Lisa Meckes and Patrick A. Reilly.  

EastLine's The Normal Heart is a top-notch, high quality production. It features an extremely talented cast. Whether or not you have seen other productions of this play, I highly recommend you make time to see this show at The EastLine Theatre. You will be moved by the thought-provoking dialogue and impressed with the acting abilities of the performers. The time will fly by and you will be enriched by the experience. Visit EastLine Productions' website at for more information.

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