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Produced by Washington Shakespeare Company at the Clark Street Playhouse to July 30
To the pulse of a disco beat at Washington Shakespeare Company’s expansive new Clark Street Playhouse, a strobe light pierces a solid-seeming wall of perforated metal silhouetting a roomful of frenzied, ricocheting male bodies. The year is 1981 in The Normal Heart, Larry Kramer’s accusatory rant about officialdom’s slow response to the AIDS epidemic, so the sex-charged dancing is still uncomplicatedly exultant. But in WSC’s hindsight-enhanced D.C. premiere of this era-defining play, the metal wall through which patrons view the dancers has been splashed with red paint. Their twisting, thrusting bodies appear to have been splattered by a frozen spray of blood.
Authorial stand-in Ned Weeks (Andrew Rapoport) is watching the dancers, but cannot fully understand the ominousness of that image. In 1981 (and even when the play ends in 1984), transmission of what was then known as a “gay plague” was still shrouded in mystery. Ned’s first question in the play—a characteristically blunt “What the fuck is going on?”—was pretty much everyone’s question back then. At least everyone who was paying attention.
Kramer’s point, though, is that attention was not being paid—not by New York’s “bachelor” mayor nor by a homophobic U.S. president spouting “shining city on a hill” rhetoric nor by closeted leaders of a gay community that was still celebrating its post-Stonewall sexual liberation. When Ned seeks reassurance from Dr. Emma Brookner (Miyuki Williams) after reading a short “gay cancer” item on Page 20 of the New York Times, she has personally seen 28 cases of immune system collapse among gay men. By any standard, that constitutes an epidemic, but she has almost despaired of getting anyone to notice.
Ned, being a writer with some credibility in gay circles, asks what he can do, and is shocked when she answers, “Tell gay men to stop having sex.” He tries to explain how integral sexuality is to gay politics, pride, and power. She remains adamant. “It only sounds harsh. Wait a few more years, it won’t sound so harsh.”
That arrogant prediction from an arrogant playwright in 1985 proved prescient, of course. So much so that Kramer’s once-inflammatory chronicle of his own relentless efforts to make AIDS a public health priority now flirts with being entirely noncontroversial. As its characters struggle over strategy and battle with media and government indifference, director Richard Mancini never needs to remind patrons how right Kramer was.
If The Normal Heart is dismissive about the underlying causes of official cowardice and foot-dragging, it’s scrupulously careful to give every faction of the gay movement’s leadership its due. Kramer co-founded Gay Men’s Health Crisis (GMHC) with five less-confrontational friends whose viewpoints are represented in the play by three activists: Bruce Niles (Stephen Angus), a closeted Citibank VP who agrees to be the group’s first president; Mickey Marcus (Brian McMonagle), a health columnist for the New York Native; and Tommy Boatwright (Jeff Lofton), a born conciliator who urges that caregiving be a group priority. Also central are Ned’s lover Felix (Christopher Henley), a lifestyles writer for the New York Times, and Ned’s attorney brother Ben (Brian Hemmingsen), who finds his sibling’s stridency embarrassing.
Everyone else just finds it overbearing, and the danger courted by productions of The Normal Heart is that, over time, the audience will, too. WSC’s mounting is fortunate in having Rapoport’s modulated, cumulative performance to build on. The actor is the nephew of one of the six GMHC co-founders, and perhaps for that reason he’s found more empathy and sensitivity in the Kramer-inspired central role than is customary. Rapoport begins the evening so quietly, in fact, that patrons unfamiliar with Kramer’s scorched-earth rep will wonder why everyone keeps tiptoeing around him. By the middle of the first act, though, he’s in full rant, shouting at his brother, then at Felix, then at all his other allies. If this is how he treats his friends, you say to yourself, just imagine how he must be at the offstage meetings with officials.
The others are more reserved, and that makes them appear more complex. Angus only gives the audience a rare glimpse of how good the anguished Niles is at keeping Ned in check through parliamentary means, but Niles’ pain registers all the more strongly because he’s hiding it. Lofton’s initially flirty conciliator turns out to have a backbone of steel in the play’s later stages. And McMonagle has a genuinely extraordinary “I am not a murderer” speech in which he tearfully, and with astounding ferocity, counters many of Ned’s most central assumptions. Kramer’s play may be didactic in its impact, but it’s not one-sided.
When The Normal Heart was first produced a decade ago at New York’s Public Theater, it was greeted by critics as an inflammatory call to arms, but it was already something of a history play. At the April ’85 premiere, audiences were shocked to see the walls of the theater covered with numbers—of AIDS cases in various municipalities, of AIDS fatalities, and of dollars committed to fighting the disease. Each month, the figures were crossed out and updated, and the sense of urgency increased. By August of that year, when I caught up with the show in New York, the national total for reported AIDS cases (not deaths) stood at 12,062. Today that number seems impossibly low, but it tells you why Kramer was screaming so loudly. At that point, the epidemic still appeared containable. Ten years later, “nothing much has changed except that everything’s become much worse” says the author in a stinging playbill broadside in which he takes swipes at the current occupant of the White House (“our third useless President in a row”) and the National Institutes of Health (“a cesspool of mediocrity”).
What has changed is that the audience no longer needs convincing that the epidemic merits action. The urgency of The Normal Heart—and perhaps its usefulness as a revolutionary diatribe—has waned somewhat as more people have accepted its intellectual arguments. In fact, the audience most likely to go to the play today probably has its head in much the same place the author does. Fortunately, Kramer also gave Heart a heart, and that’s what registers most strongly in WSC’s production. The scenes in which Ned and Felix fall in love, spar, and comfort one another are far the most affecting moments in the production, due in no small part to the winsome sweetness Henley brings to Felix’s love for his partner.
Mancini’s production is clear-eyed, efficient, and makes excellent use of Michael Murray’s corrugated metal walls, Jim Stone’s disco-inflected sound mix, and Benjamin Hay’s atmospheric lighting. The production is almost pristine at the outset, but as the fighting gets messier, so does the stage, with papers, chairs, and—in the play’s most explosively rending image—a carton of milk hitting the floor. The AIDS debacle will get messier still, and playwrights will continue to come up with varied ways (witness Angels in America) to deal with it. Heart can be viewed as a stepping-stone to works of greater breadth and scope, but as this production establishes, it’s much too vibrant and stageworthy to be dismissed as some sort of theatrical artifact.
A word about WSC’s new home: The Clark Street Playhouse is the most promising arts facility to open in the metropolitan area in years. A monstrous red-brick warehouse at the north end of Crystal City, it’s visible from Route 395 South at the exit for Route 1, and has room enough for at least three more theaters the size of the one currently occupied by The Normal Heart. Getting there is a matter of turning left twice after leaving the highway, or of walking a few blocks north from the Crystal City Metro stop, which means it’s substantially more convenient for D.C. residents than either Signature Theater or the Gunston Arts Center (the increasingly popular stages that have recently put Arlington on the theatrical map). A 26-foot ceiling and broad, uncolumned floor space allow for steeply banked seating with plenty of leg room. The company is even thinking of building a second-level lounge in the lobby, and it’s easy to imagine a restaurant there. The only restriction on capacity at the moment is that on-site parking is limited. Because street parking is plentiful, however, the company hopes to convince the county to relax its current seats-per-car rules. At last Saturday’s opening, the lobby still had wet paint and the auditorium’s acoustics needed to be adjusted, but the overall effect was gratifyingly spectacular, especially for a scrappy, long-itinerant company like WSC. With The Normal Heart, the troupe can lay claim to having the most opinionated play in the hippest theater in the city.