When it first debuted in 1985, Larry Kramer’s play “The Normal Heart,” about the beginnings of the AIDS crisis in New York, was described by New York Times reviewer Frank Rich as “the most outspoken play around,” with “a subject that justifies its author’s unflagging, at times even hysterical, sense of urgency.”
Over two decades later, “The Normal Heart” has lost none of its fierceness, its power, nor, sadly, its urgency, as the City Theatre’s current production shows. Though we now live in an age where an HIV diagnosis is not necessarily a death sentence, as it was in the early 1980s, the play is less about the virus itself than it is about the political action it spurred in New York’s LGBTQ+ community. As such, City Theatre’s production feels as timely as ever, given that we live in an era of renewed interest in political activism.
Directors Carl Gonzales and Lacey Cannon Gonzales certainly don’t shy away from the text’s anger. The story follows the lives of several AIDS activists, and as they go ignored by the government and see the epidemic only grow worse, their righteous fury grows from scene to scene. The ensemble cast does not pull back from these outbursts, most notably McArthur Moore as Mickey Marcus (whose slow-burn joviality early in the play lends true ferocity to his later anger), and Laura Ray as Emma Brookner, who is given the show’s most overtly political monologue.
What lends “The Normal Heart” much of its power, 20 years on, is that it isn’t merely an easy narrative of us-against-them activism. Rather, it explores the different shades of response to the AIDS crisis by different members of New York’s gay male community. In the debates between sex positivity and absolute abstinence (to prevent transmission), between compromising with government officials and excoriating them in the public, and between being in or out of the closet, each of Kramer’s characters is right, even when they are diametrically opposed. Activism is no easy feat, even in the face of biological annihilation, and today’s crop of young activists could learn much from the story told in “The Normal Heart.”
City Theatre’s production of the play is both timely (coming on the heels of Pride celebrations across the world and in terms of our current national political climate) and simple, with an elegant, multi-purpose set that keeps the focus on the characters and the politics rather than the specific setting of each scene. By the end of the play, the detritus of props from previous scenes bleeds into the following ones, creating a literal representation of the way the ghosts of the departed haunt those who remain alive.
With a powerful message that still sadly resonates today, “The Normal Heart” remains a crucial piece of American drama, and the City Theatre is to be applauded for bringing it back to the stage.
“The Normal Heart”
When: 8 p.m. Thursday-Saturday, 3 p.m. Sunday through July 16
Where: 3823 Airport Blvd.
Information: 512-524-2870, citytheatreaustin.org