“The Normal Heart” At Buddies in Bad Times Theatre

For a brief period of time, Larry Kramer was known as the angriest gay man on the planet. The Normal Heart, his molotov cocktail of a play about AIDS in New York in the early 1980s, was angrily hurled in the face of theatregoers in Manhattan as the disease was silently ravaging thousands of people — not just male or gay or New Yorkers — who had no idea what was happening or why. A queer classic, The Normal Heart was re-staged earlier this year on Broadway to wide acclaim, earning several Tony awards (including best revival) and the promise of a third life with a Hollywood adaptation in the works. Still fiercely controversial and unsettling for its treatment of gay identity, sexuality, political struggle and social solidarity, Buddies in Bad Times Theatre and Studio 180 bring a powerful production of the play to Toronto that will run until November 6.

The largely autobiographical play centres around Kramer’s stand-in, Ned Weeks, who is played with equal measure histrionics and neurotic charm by Jonathan Wilson, who we follow as he first notices the devastating toll AIDS is taking on the gay community around him. He quickly moves from bemoaning the state of gay culture to taking up and founding the Gay Men’s Health Crisis advocacy group to bring to the public’s attention the epidemic that the still-mysterious AIDS was proving itself to be. We see the many trials and tribulations experienced by Weeks, a pioneering doctor treating hundreds of patients in Manhattan, and Weeks’ core partners in the GMHC, as they tirelessly attempt to wage their fight against public indifference, cultural and political repression, and, of course, each other’s personalities — all as their friends and lovers continue to die around them.

Director Joel Greenberg shrewdly stages the play in the round, with the audience sitting close and facing the stage from all four sides. Dramatically heightening the immediacy and urgency of Kramer’s words, he is able to implicate the audience in the conversations and moral muddles Kramer tries to clarify. Yet, as tremendously incendiary as it is, perhaps the most remarkable thing about the production is the way it is able to preserve the tenderness that delicately sits in the play’s soft spots. The Normal Heartalso tells the story of the relationship Weeks begins with Times reporter Felix Turner (wonderfully played by Jeff Miller), as they fall in love amid their struggles and themselves have to face the personal realities of AIDS. This reveals what, as its title suggests, the play is also essentially about: loving and the ability to openly love. This extraordinary control of the cast, especially Wilson and Miller, to hold the play’s contradictions in a proper tension, never allowing the rage to eliminate the intimacy and vulnerability these men experienced, elevates it above mere polemic or historical snapshot. For today’s audience, this is where much of the play’s resonance and relevance should derive its punch. Not in celebrating ‘love will conquer all’ bromides, but in affirming the need to challenge the injustices of a political, social and sexual culture that continues to at best tolerate or ignore (and at worst, stifle and shame) the expression of a love that is still all-too-often reluctant to speak its name. The Normal Heartshows that there is no insuperable divide between declaring political or social struggle and speaking directly to the most intensely personal and beautifully irrepressible experiences of life — and that affirming one does not necessarily preclude or impoverish the other. This is the lasting lesson that Kramer’s play, twenty-six years on and still timely, remains a loud and furious, but also a touching and sweet reminder of.