Zeitgeist Stages Beautiful and Emotive ‘Normal Heart’ at BCA (4.5 Stars)

‘The Normal Heart’ Written by Larry Kramer; Directed by David J. Miller; Produced by the Zeitgeist Stage Company at the BCA Plaza Black Box through Nov. 23rd.

Larry Kramer’s “The Normal Heart”, now playing at BCA, is so emotive and so beautifully acted, you may be having a hard time seeing anything by the end, since your eyes will probably be welling up with tears. At least that’s what happened to a number of audience members around me, as well as several of the cast members by the end of this nearly three-hour play. Although a tad drawn out in the very beginning and then again towards the end, this is a great production and this tiny theater (the BCA Plaza Black Box) is the perfect venue for its staging, where you as an audience member are so close to the action that you are part of it.

The theater is very intimate, seating 80 people at most. The sets are simple, with much of the backdrop being projected as black-and-white photographs, saving space on stage and allowing one to concentrate on the action and the acting without any distractions. On the black walls of the theater,  AIDS-related statistics are written out in chalk: when the epidemic was declared; how (poorly) it was covered by the press; how many people live with the virus and what the demographic breakdown was back when it all just started, and now.

The play was initially written in 1985, just as the AIDS epidemic was on the rise. The virus had just been discovered, people were still dropping like flies, and it was still believed to be a largely “gay” disease. It was shameful and scary, and so easy for so many to distance themselves from it, since this-is-never-going-to-happen-to-us. Many of the messages of this layer of the play are about awareness, financial difficulties, and about proving that ‘being-gay-is-not-a-disease-so-stop-sending-me-to-therapy’.

During the performance I was sitting next to an older man, with whom we chatted briefly during the intermission. He lived through this scare, and was himself one of the activists in Kentucky in 1986, organizing some of the first awareness groups there, much like the main character, Ned, did in the play. He showed me his original ribbon, from back in his activist days – silver, with a red drop of a stone at the bottom of it.

One of the biggest questions that the characters were raising from different perspectives is not even that of the disease and what to do with it, but that of identity: if being gay is not about sex, what is it about? One of the strongest scenes of the play, where Ned, the main character, finally attempts to stand up to his brother, is devoted to this question.

And then there is the politics of health care, which makes the piece as contemporary in this respect as it was nearly thirty years ago. There is a question of “those who speak up are the ones who will get in trouble. But if you don’t speak up, who will?” And the question of “how do you know that this is really an issue and you are not making a mountain out of a molehill”, as was done with the Tylenol scare of the same time (several deaths were linked to use of Tylenol, which scared the public much more than this obscure disease that affects only this small subpopulation of men that “don’t even exist”). It is a message of humanity, of fear, or acceptance and lack of thereof, or never-ending need to fight if not this plague than the other, and of how these issues keep getting recycled over time, and so these messages need to be repeated again and again and again.

And in conclusion – to put on my cancer researcher hat for a moment – one of the very important things that we in cancer biology have learned from AIDS treatment experience is that while there is still no cure, one can coexist with such a disease, and keep living a relatively normal life. It does not have to be a death sentence any more. And this is what we are learning, finally, in dealing with cancer: finding ways to coexist with it in fact leads to longer survival. But that is for another story. For more info, go to: http://www.zeitgeiststage.com/

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