Regional Reviews: St. Louis
The Normal Heart
I came out here in 1983, at the age of 25, and was struck by the occasional sight of emaciated young men at parties, or in gay bars, surrounded by protective friends, rare individual AIDS patients in a medium-size Midwestern city looking like a skeletons in loose-fitting clothes. One handsome young man I remember from a dinner party seemed especially bitter, for, despite a thin layer of foundation and the subtleties of candlelight, you could still see dozens of tiny cancerous lesions on his otherwise beautiful face.
Like some of the characters in The Normal Heart, he was suffering from Kaposi's sarcoma, once known as particular to Mediterranean fishermen, but emerging in this country as the human immunodeficiency virus began ravaging the systems of men who had sex with men. And this play by Larry Kramer, which debuted Off-Broadway in 1985, is a multiverse of all those shocking medical surprises (and more) all at once, in one new reality, reminding us that things were much worse in New York City, at ground zero of the AIDS epidemic. Stray Dog Theatre co-founder Gary F. Bell directs, managing the insidious terror with a relentless gaze.
There's no happy curtain speech beforehand, as is the custom with Mr. Bell. This time we just dive into something like Russian literature, if you can imagine heterosexual-based American politics under Ronald Reagan as being like Czarist Russia in 1917 and ripe for gay revolt. Or perhaps like some German holocaust tragedy from the 1930s. Here, every gay man on stage is going crazy from dire waiting, and emotional deprivation, and double-speak, and absolute denial. It's gripping, even thrilling, to watch years later–and to have survived at all, in spite of everything. And, perhaps needless to say, a handbook for fighting back.
Watching the two hour and forty-five minute play, we can look back with shared grief and a bleak sense of admiration amidst the near death of an entire subculture, in the face of hatred and dismissiveness, and the utter fumbling of an emergency by the most powerful nation in memory. And even console ourselves at the amazing re-population of the LGBTQ+ community forty years later.
Playwright Kramer (who died in May 2020) gives us a lightly rewritten autobiography. The story follows Ned Weeks, a highly combative young man in New York who is outraged that everyone around him is dying or counting up their own dead friends, beginning in 1981. And awaiting the same grim fate for themselves, for reasons as yet unknown. Mr. Kramer is still vividly remembered as deeply oppositional in nature by the recent head of the Centers for Disease Control, Dr. Anthony Fauci, who knew him at the time.
In this production, Stephen Peirick gives an unforgettable, fireball performance as Ned Weeks/Larry Kramer, interspersed with regular moments of heartbreaking intimacy, as he and his friends start up the Gay Men's Health Crisis (now simply "GMHC"). And the same energy that helped Kramer start it all becomes his own poetic undoing at the end. It should have been so different, but that's what lifts it into art.
Ned and his friends get caught up in a maelstrom of ringing AIDS hotline phone banks (part of a rich sound design by Justin Been) and ensnared in angry confrontations with the New York Times and the mayor's office, as the only little knot of people who can begin to grasp the scope of it all. They're guided by an overwhelmed public healthcare physician, played (from a motorized wheelchair) with perfect weariness by Sarajane Alverson, the no-nonsense Dr. Emma Brookner. Outside this sphere of would-be helpers, there's a stinging storm of elegant disdain from the powerful elite: actor Jeremy Goldmeier dashes in and out of officiousness and embarrassment as an aide to Mayor Ed Koch. And that's opposite a gritty, disorganized panic in the subculture, embodied by Mr. Peirick, which gradually spreads to everyone else. It's a recipe for dysfunction.
The Normal Heart suggests that (usually) anonymous hate helped trigger a ravenous need for (usually) anonymous love, setting the stage for the plague that followed. Jonathan Hey (Mr. Peirick's real-life husband) is outstanding as another public health worker who faces firing, for helping to make a political issue out of it all, and he disappears into the role of Mickey Marcus. Joey Saunders is heart-wrenching as Ned's dying boyfriend Felix, caught in the lie that is the internal censorship within the New York Times. His character gets a full ride on stage, thanks to him: from bemused society reporter to joyful martyr at the end.
If you're only used to seeing Jeffrey M. Wright as a romantic lead in musicals, come see The Normal Heart for his mid-life break-out performance as Bruce, a vice president at Citibank. Preppy and corporate in the first act, all the pain of the epidemic comes home to him in the second, with devastating results. Mr. Wright transcends his sleek reputation, giving us the last full measure of human heartbreak.
I fear that younger gay people simply won't believe the nearly unbearable drama of it all–that these gay outsiders in the early 1980s could be so completely trapped, by society and by themselves, in such a perfect storm of neediness and politics and epidemiology. Everything they were, and everything that's about to happen to them, cries out for even the tiniest shred of hope and endurance. And that's something we can hold out to them now, in the theater, decades later, from across the depth and beyond the light.
But there are also laughs, I swear to God. And in the present day, it reminds us that life is not all RuPaul and showtunes and vodka slushy drinks. It's mostly just a stunning observance of Pride Month, which once again reminds me of my half-dozen or so friends who died, and each died in different ways. Or maybe the play is more of a Passover feast: to remember just one horrific plague. With no shortage of bitter herbs.
The Normal Heart runs through June 25, 2022, at Stray Dog Theatre, Tower Grove Abbey, 2336 Tennessee Avenue, St. Louis MO. For more information visit www.straydogtheatre.org.
Cast (in order of appearance):