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The Normal Heart

The Normal Heart. Written by Larry Kramer. Directed by John Fisher. Theatre Rhino, Gateway Theater, 215 Jackson Street, San Francisco, CA.

For its 40th season, Theatre Rhino turns full circle to present Larry Kramer’s 1985 Tony-award winning drama The Normal Heart. It was in 1984, the final year of the play’s chronology, that Alan Estes Jr, Rhino’s founding father succumbed to AIDS and the company premiered The AIDS Show: Artists Involved with Death and Survival, a ground-breaking work co-authored by twenty San Francisco Bay Area artists. It was the first work by any theater company in the nation to deal with the AIDS epidemic, and brought The Rhino national attention. Similarly, The Normal Heart, based in NYC 1981-84 deals with the same struggle to bring the epidemic to the national consciousness.

Following the story of writer and gay activist Ned Week’s difficult struggle to bring attention to the crisis, The Normal Heart focuses on his private and public battles against indifference to the growing crisis. John Fisher directs and plays Weeks, a character based on playwright Larry Kramer, founder of seminal AIDS organizations Gay Men’s Health Crisis (GMHC) and AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power (ACT UP).  Fisher’s Weeks runs the gamut from despair when his lover Felix is diagnosed, tender caretaker to raging, angry confrontationist.

Jeremy Cole (Felix) shares a tender moment with lover Ned (John Fisher). Photo by David Wilson.

This play is not easy emotionally for those of a certain age who bore witness to the horror and destruction of the years prior to the AIDS cocktails. It should be mandatory viewing for LGBTQ youth as a necessary training of our collective past. The play brings up the ugly truths of gay indifference to the plight of their dying brothers, the fear and paranoia that ran rampant, the apathy from those in power and the abject hopelessness of those early days.

Tommy Boatwright (Morgan Lange) comes onto Bruce NiIes (Benoit Monin). Photo by David Wilson.

Weeks combats not only an absent, silent bureaucracy, but the opposition within the organization he founded. Benoit Monin plays the closeted Bruce Niles, who’s elected president over the in-your-face Weeks. Robert Zelenka does a nice turn as Ben Weeks, Ned’s corporate lawyer brother. Tim Garcia is electric as Mickey Marcus, angry over losing the hard-fought right to love in the face of a sexless new world. Leticia Duarte mirrors Ned’s righteous indignation playing Dr. Emma Brookner, one of the only physicians caring for the early AIDS cases. Jeremy Cole is heartbreaking as Felix, Ned’s first real love and tragic victim of the disease. All the characters are based on real people and events, which makes The Normal Heart so incredibly powerful and important.

Felix (Jeremy Cole) prepares his will with Ned’s brother Ben (Robert Zelenka). Photo by David Wilson.

Scenic designer Gilbert Johnson sets the atmosphere with newspaper clippings and facts from the period. Panels display the names of those lost to the disease, including of course Alan Estes Jr. Besides the obvious connections to this story and Theatre Rhino’s history, the play symbolizes the ongoing fight against our enemies. The winning strategy of Ned Week’s call for direct action is certainly applicable against apathy, ignorance and homophobia today.

Performances run through November 25, 2017     www.therino.org       800.838.3006