Now on tour at American Conservatory Theater, the Tony Award-winning revival of The Normal Heart features a mode of acting we don't see often in the Bay Area. Character after character in Larry Kramer's drama, which chronicles the American onset of the AIDS epidemic, delivers at least one tirade that escalates to screaming. Kramer's characters sound alarms in the face of pervasive silence. They speak uncompromising, angry words about a disease (or, as Kramer insists it be called, "a plague") to which the initial reaction was — and for Kramer, has been ever since — equally horrifying.
For decades, Kramer has been one of the most prominent firebrands in both the gay and theatrical communities. In the early '80s, when you couldn't say the word "gay" in public, when authorities from the government to doctors to the New York Times repeatedly belittled or neglected AIDS, Kramer was a pioneering activist, demanding honesty and justice when even other members of his Gay Men's Health Crisis (GMHC) disagreed with his using the word "gay" or associating AIDS with sex before the connection had conclusive evidence. The Normal Heart closely traces this part of Kramer's biography. The play also borrows from real-life Kramer's inflammatory language. Ned Weeks (Patrick Breen), Kramer's avatar, is the kind of activist who would dismiss his fellow gays as having "singled out promiscuity to be their principal political agenda" or call the mayoral assistant he's been desperate to meet a "cocksucker" to his face. These duels of verbiage are amplified by David Rockwell's set design, with its 3-D headlines popping out of the walls, and by Batwin + Robin Productions' projection design, which overwhelms with its tally of names of the dead, much like the Vietnam War Memorial.
But The Normal Heart is not just a series of debates. As a dramatist, Kramer writes with more compassion and warmth than he does in other media, showing real empathy for characters you could imagine him condemning elsewhere: Ben (Bruce Altman), Ned's brother and a wealthy lawyer who's willing to support Ned so long as he doesn't have to call him an equal; Mickey (Michael Berresse), a GMHC co-founder who, despite his medical knowledge, laments, "I don't know what to tell anybody, and everybody asks me"; Bruce (Nick Mennell), who as GMHC president is in the conflicted position of being the leader of "the world's first HIV/AIDS service organization" as a closeted gay man. Kramer unleashes the full fury of Ned's wrath on each of these characters, but he also endows them with relatable fears for jobs and reputations, anxieties about change, and weariness from too many battles. These are people who every day must decide how much more of their lives to devote to their cause.
Director George C. Wolfe's ensemble offers the kind of acting that people go to the theater hoping to find, performances that make you both marvel at craft and relinquish yourself to an emotional world brought forcefully alive. Matt McGrath as Felix, Ned's lover, performs an anatomy of a sickness, his delicate rendering telling the audience more about the disease than any of the play's doctors or experts can. Berresse as Mickey paints just as refined a portrait of mental collapse: The irregular timing of his descent unhinges both his performance, and temporarily, our own sense of stage time. And Breen makes sure the mighty chip on Ned's shoulder is always moderated by a passionately beating heart.
Much has changed since Kramer's play premiered in 1985. For an audience member watching in 2012, the play recalls the recent cases made for universal healthcare, gay marriage, or economic equality. In other words, the play is no longer just a plea for recognition from the marginalized; in this production, the marginalized more clearly than ever stand for all of us.