Monday, May 9, 2011

WLS Theater Review: "The Normal Heart"

Do you remember the summer of 1981 when a strange form of “gay cancer” began to sweep through the New York community?  Do you remember when the government refused to fund research to learn about the unknown disease that was decimating a generation of gay men? Do you remember when there was no medical way to find out if you were a carrier of this mysterious illness? Do you remember fearing that you could be the one spreading it to everyone else? Do you remember when you would run into a friend on the street and learn a week later they were dead?  Do you remember watching someone you love decompensate and die right in front of you?

If you are younger than 40, then you may not have a memory, much less knowledge, of any of these happenings that were so common in the early years of the AIDS epidemic.  That, in and of itself, is reason enough to see the new Tony Award-nominated staging of Larry Kramer’s, “The Normal Heart.” But aside from the historical and educational relevance of the 1985 play, there is an electricity in this staging that embodies the urgency and desperation experienced in those early traumatic years.  This is exactly the passionate and pertinent production that is so needed in a 21st century society that would rather deny and forget the impact of HIV and AIDS. 

Beyond the powerful messages, moral quandaries, and political struggles presented, the audience is also treated to first rate acting.  From the very back of the theater, I could feel actor Joe Mantello unraveling in his astonishing performance as Ned Weeks.  As the tortured activist (based on playwright Kramer himself), Mantello captures all the self-loathing, confusion, anger, and impulsive energy that infused Kramer’s early responses to the AIDS crisis.  It is fascinating and uncomfortable to see this actor popping out of his skin as he witnesses the infrastructure of his world collapsing around him.

Other standout performances include Jim Parsons (BIG BANG THEORY), contributing a stirring and inspiring performance as a young southern activist caught up in the trauma and tragedy, while Lee Pace (PUSHING DAISIES) portrays a grounded, rational, and torn president of a new gay organization.  Benjamin Hickey (THE BIG C) lends the entire production a layer of emotional gravity which makes you wish the theater gave you Kleenex on the way in, while Ellen Barkin (BEFORE WOMEN HAD WINGS) brings all the action to a grinding halt in her profound and shocking performance as the doctor who urges Weeks to rally gay men to action.  Her monologue in the second act denouncing the government’s lack of research funding literally gave me chills and provided a moment in theater that no one in the audience will soon forget. 

Thirty years later, why revive “The Normal Heart?” Because contrary to what you may hear, people with HIV and AIDS are still suffering. Nineteen states have cut funding for the AIDS Drug Assistance Program (ADAP) thereby making it impossible for people in need to have access to the medicines they can save their lives, and more states may soon follow suit.  Service organizations that help to provide housing, food, and clothing for people with HIV are facing severe budget cuts in the third year of our worst recession since before the crisis started.  Even in the best of circumstances, the medicines that are available do not work for every body.  And yes, “The Normal Heart” reminds us that people we know and love are still dying from this ferocious disease, and more than 18,000 will die from AIDS this year.  Kramer’s play will tell you what the news won’t:  It was unconscionable to sit back and ignore AIDS in 1981, and it is unacceptable to do nothing about it in 2011. 

The We Love Soaps TV Team is walking in the 2011 New York AIDS Walk this Sunday, May 15th, to raise much needed funds for Gay Men’s Health Crisis, God’s Love We Deliver, and other service organizations that help to provide health care, food, shelter, and mental health programs for people living with HIV.  A simple donation makes it possible for someone living with this disease to have a meal, a coat, life saving drugs, and an improved quality of life.  If you can’t come see “The Normal Heart” then please consider the messages behind it.  AIDS kills.  We can change the world through our actions.  Let’s start changing it today.

S.A.S.S. (Short Attention Soap Summary)

WHAT IS IT:  "The Normal Heart" written by Larry Kramer, directed by Joel Grey and George C. Wolfe, featuring Ellen Barkin, Joe Mantello, John Benjamin Hickey, Jim Parsons, as well as Luke MacFarlane (BROTHERS & SISTERS) and Wayne Alan Wilcox (GILMORE GIRLS).

WHY SOAP FANS WILL LOVE IT: Every show in the history of daytime has used tragic illness to illuminate a beautiful heart-wrenching tear-jerking story.  "The Normal Heart" does this but offers you a cogent history lesson as well.

BOTTOM LINE: People who are shocked by the soulless reckless behavior of certain ABC/Disney execs that resulted in the deaths of ALL MY CHILDREN and ONE LIFE TO LIVE will relate to the soulless and reckless behaviors of certain government execs displayed in "The Normal Heart" that resulted in the deaths of hundreds of thousands of people.

VERDICT: If you have a heart, "normal" or otherwise, you owe it to yourself to catch this profoundly moving play before it closes on July 10th.  Buy tickets here. 

- Press here to make a donation for the We Love Soaps TV team in the 2011 AIDS Walk

Damon L. Jacobs is a Licensed Therapist in New York City who specializes in treating depression, stress management, HIV/AIDS related concerns, and grief/loss issues. He is also the author of the popular book "Absolutely Should-less: The Secret to Living the Stress-Free Life You Deserve," currently available at For more information about scheduling an appointment or a speaking engagement, please email him at [email protected].

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