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Theatre Charlotte Displays Normal Heart's Depths
March 30, 2015
Photo caption: Cynthia Farbman Harris (Dr. Emma Bookner) and Tommy Foster (Ned Weeks) in Larry Kramer's The Normal Heart
In his work Poetics, Aristotle wrote of tragedy that it is an “imitation of an action that is admirable, complete (composed of an introduction, a middle part and an ending), and possesses magnitude; in language made pleasurable… effecting through pity and fear the purification of such emotions.”
Catharsis, introspection, questioning; it’s not often theater inspires in us these things. Tragedies typically inspire more Kleenex usage than anything.When we think about conventional dramatic tragedies, Shakespeare’s Macbeth or Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman, we think of a sorrowful display of a protagonist’s fall from grace. We think of a plot that wallows in despair and death, and we might even think of an altruistic lesson that the protagonist, and thus the audience, learns through their trials. Tragedy is all of these things. Theatre Charlotte’s latest production, The Normal Heart, (running through April 4) holds true to many of these pillars of theatrical pathos, and through the tribulations of the fictitious Ned Weeks, shines a light on a real tragedy of immense proportions that has largely been ignored.
In the case of The Normal Heart, tragedy and its admirable action is wrapped up in the HIV-AIDS crisis of the early 1980s, specifically in New York City. It’s a semi-autobiographical play by Larry Kramer following the gay activist Weeks, portrayed by Tommy Foster, as he organizes the frenzied NYC community — with the help of his friend and physician Dr. Emma Brookner (Cynthia Farbman Harris) — in an attempt to understand and communicate the dangers
of a new and terrible disease that seems to be targeting homosexual men. However, all of those to whom Ned reaches out for help — his brother Ben (Frank Dominguez), his friends Bruce, Mickey and Tommy (Paul Riley, Chris Chandler and Jonathan Ewart, respectively) and fellow members of the Manhattan homosexual community — either lack his sense of dire urgency, or scorn his fiery disposition and demands for direct and immediate action. The Normal Heart is a study, therefore, in human struggle. The audience watches as a disease, at the time not yet fully understood, knocks down the life-supporting pillars of family and friends around Weeks, leaving him alone and largely forsaken by those around him.
The Normal Heart carries in it a constant heightened level of energy. Kramer packs into his play love, anger and disguised self-criticism, mostly encapsulated in the character of Weeks. Throughout the first act, the commanding performance by Foster keeps the action moving at a steady drumbeat through unceasing emotional fervor. Weeks’ character requires ferocity, magnetism and all the aforementioned emotion, which Foster produces in spades. But the result makes the routine confrontations Weeks initiates with friends and family seem equally urgent and equally draining. This constant attack-attack-attack attitude inherent to the character of Weeks renders all his interactions with other characters basically flat and lacking in impact. In the opening scenes there were opportunities for depth-providing variations in energy and pace, anticipation and resolution, but they weren't utilized. And when everything is crucial, nothing is.
Thankfully, set and lighting design from Chris Timmons does its best to accentuate all of the interpersonal intricacies between the dozen characters without distracting from them. The minimal set, mostly chairs and the occasional medical examination table, keeps the focus on dialogue. The lightning makes generous use of projection to highlight poignant moments in the late 80s media and memorialize victims of the epidemic around which the play revolves. It also disguises what little there is in terms of set changes, which are nicely executed though sometimes heavy handed.
But it’s during the second act, where Ned and his friends are forced into emotional peaks and valleys, that The Normal Heart really shines. Chris Chandler’s acceptable (if not unforgettable) portrayal of the character Mickey Marcus in the opening actions really begins to lift the performance of the troupe as a whole as we advance towards the end of the play. Mickey Marcus, a long-time friend of Weeks, has been assisting his efforts to disperse information about HIV-AIDS to the public through the organization they jointly created. As the epidemic grows in severity, so does the traffic at the organization’s makeshift call center, where Mickey, Tommy and Bruce are found busily taking calls and organizing volunteers. Mickey, overwhelmed by a combination of frantic callers, and the now fragile state of his employment with the Department of Public Health, breaks down in a panic-attack monologue that takes his previously subdued and reserved character and thrusts him into the forefront of the action. Until this moment, Weeks had monopolized the emotional direction of the action; when Mickey speaks up, this drastic shift in the power dynamic paired with Chandler’s truly incredible delivery had the audience almost applauding mid scene.
From then on, the fluctuating exchange of emotional command between a spiraling Weeks and the rest of the cast makes each monologue more heartbreaking than the next. Not much further in the action, Bruce Niles, the closeted, cowardly, former military president of Weeks' organization, breaks down in his own terribly sad monologue -- again beautifully performed, this time by Paul Riley. These moments where the audience gets the opportunity to learn more about those around Weeks tend to be the production’s most endearing moments.
Kramer’s pointed attacks at ignorance, peppered throughout the narrative of The Normal Heart, are communicated through a glaze of sadness. The ceaseless earnestness that Kramer brews in the relationships between his characters — and specifically imbues in the protagonist — makes The Normal Heart a tragedy, but a cathartic one, grounded in historical realism, and imbues it with a strange and unexpected warmth. I think it would be fair to say that The Normal Heart is successful in the “purification,” as Aristotle said, of an extraordinary depth of emotion. In the end, Theatre Charlotte does an incredible job manifesting that.