Rhino’s The Normal Heart explodes at the Gateway Theatre.

Pictured left to right: Tim Garcia as Mickey, John Fisher as Ned, Benoît Monin as Bruce, Nick Moore as Craig and Leticia Duarte as Emma in THE NORMAL HEART by Larry Kramer.

THE NORMAL HEART: Drama by Larry Kramer. Directed by John Fisher. Theatre Rhino, The Gateway Theatre (Formerly The Eureka Theatre), 215 Jackson St. (at Battery St.), SF, CA. Tickets:  http://www.brownpapertickets.com/event/3091258 or 1-800-838-3006.

Rhino’s The Normal Heart explodes at the Gateway Theatre. Rating: ★★★★☆

Theatre Rhino’s production of The Normal Heart now playing at the Gateway Theater captured the attention of opening night’s audience including this reviewer recalling trauma of the 80s when gay men were dying of an unknown medical malady. As a practicing medical doctor in the 1980s this reviewer shared the frustration of the character Dr. Emma Brookner (Leticia Duarte) who was one of the first to suggest the disease was transmitted by sexual contact. Whereas Kramer’s play is specific to New York City there was, unbeknownst to us in the medical profession, the “epidemic” that was devastating the gay community was a world-wide problem that was to infect millions of people . . . gay and straight.

Larry Kramer’s semi-autobiographical The Normal Heart was first produced in 1985 at Joseph Papp’s Public Theater and went on to gather awards for its initial production and for each successive remounting. Rhino’s staging is a diamond in the rough block-buster that should be seen with the caveat that it would be more powerful with allowing the juxtaposition of quieter interpersonal scenes more attention. The open stage is mostly in white panels with the names of many of the local persons who died written on the walls. The audience is encouraged to add any appropriate names.

The play centers on Ned Weeks (John Fisher) who is Kramer’s alter ego and his circle of friends who were dying of this mysterious illness that became named as acquired immunodeficiency syndrome (AIDS) caused by the Human immunodeficiency virus (HIV). In the 1980s that diagnosis was a death sentence and deaths were frequently occurring in the Gay NYC population and became known as the “Gay Disease.”

Because of condemnation of gay people by political, religious groups and even the general population on the grounds that gays practiced abnormal sex, obtaining funds for research was almost impossible. In the play Ned is a Jewish writer who himself has lost friends and lovers undertakes a quest for the political community to declare an epidemic and spur research for the cause and treatment. Ned’s approach is confrontational thus causing a schism amongst his gay friends and interfered with obtaining financial backing for research.

Ned initially appeals to his older brother a wealthy and straight-laced lawyer Ben (Robert Zelenka) for financial help without success. Ned, who is abrasive in his speech and actions, sets out to form a group to obtain funds for research. When they are unsuccessful they establish a group to help those with the disease to cope with their progressive deterioration. To Ned this is not enough when NYC Health Department worker Mickey Marcus (TimGarcia) tells him that the deaths have jumped to 41 in one week Ned goes ballistic and that is to be his downfall when he is ejected from the group(s) that he has championed.

All this may sound didactic but be assured it is not. The characters become real in their time upon the stage, and as they die on and off the stage. You will become involved in each as distinct individuals. Bruce Niles (Benoit Monin) is a former Green Beret and now as collar and tie investment banker refuses to come out of the closet for the simply reason he will be fired. Late in the second act when he tearfully recounts how the body of his former lover who died of complications of AIDS was mistreated by the hospital staff even after death.

Kramer softens the image of Ned who is allowed to rant at social injustice through most of the play by introducing gentle Felix Turner (Jeremy Cole) a New York Times staff writer who has been married and has a son. He becomes Ned’s lover. Jeremy Cole underplays his role to perfection. His transformation from charming and humorous to an AIDS patient with a deteriorating body is so heart wrenching to make you hold your breath.

Leticia Duarte gives a strong performance from her wheel chair and her explosion when the National Institute of Health offers a pittance for AIDS research is an appropriate shocker. 

Kramer’s play rails against the system that allowed AIDs to run rampant for so many years and John Fisher as Ned gives a tour-de-force performance that could use a touch of nuance. Fisher’s direction is appropriately confrontational allowing the audience to feel wrath and revulsion. He keeps the multiple scenes flowing using projections of articles and appalling statistics of those who are dead. Running time is two hours and 20 minutes including the intermission.

Recommendation: Should see lest we forget there is no cure for AIDS.

 CAST:  Jeremy Cole (Felix); Leticia Duarte (Emma); John Fisher (Director/Ned); Tim Garcia (Mickey); Jeremy Alan Howard (David/Hiram/Examining Doctor); Morgan Lange (Tommy); Benoit Monin (Bruce); Nick Moore (Craig/Grady); Robert Zelenka (Ben).

Tech Credits: Dan Draper (Costume Designer); John Fisher (Director); Gilbert Johnson (Set Designer); Lawrence Helman (Publicist); Sean Keehan (Lighting Designer); Bert van Aalsburg (Set Construction); David Wilson (Graphics/Ads/Photography)

Kedar K. Adour, MD

Courtesy of www.theatreworldim2.com

Pictured left to right: Tim Garcia as Mickey, John Fisher as Ned, Benoît Monin as Bruce, Nick Moore as Craig and Leticia Duarte as Emma in THE NORMAL HEART by Larry Kramer.