AISLE SAY San Francisco


by Larry Kramer
Directed by George C. Wolfe
Presented by and at the American Conservatory Theater
415 Geary St. at Mason, San Francisco / (415) 749-2228

Reviewed by Judy Richter

When Larry Kramer's "The Normal Heart" opened in New York in 1985, knowledge about AIDS was growing but still sadly lacking. Today, even though drugs have been found to control it, there still is no real cure, nor is there a vaccine to prevent it. In the meantime, the worldwide death toll has grown to more than 30 million, and an estimated 33.3 million people, including 1.3 million Americans, are living with HIV/AIDS. Hence the 2011 Tony-winning revival seems necessary and timely, as evidenced by the Arena Stage production that has come to San Francisco's American Conservatory Theater.

Taking place between July 1981 and May1984 in New York City, the plot focuses on a gay writer, Ned Weeks (Patrick Breen), who has become aware of a mysterious illness that is claiming the lives of gay men. When he talks with a doctor, Emma Brookner (Jordan Baker), who has been treating men with the illness, she has no answers. She doesn't know what causes it, let alone how to treat it, cure it or prevent it. However, she suspects that gay men's sexual activities play a large role in its spread. She tells Ned (a stand-in for the playwright) to tell gay men to stop having sex.

She might as well advise telling them to stop breathing. Sexual freedom has become a way of life, indeed a part of their identity. Still, Ned looks for ways to help. He and some other gay men form a group intended to provide support and resources for their afflicted brothers. However, their efforts are thwarted in several ways.

One is that government officials, the public health establishment and the mainstream press are virtually ignoring the epidemic. Ned believes they do so because gay men are not readily acceptable. He believes that if a similar crisis were confronting straight people, all sorts of resources would be unleashed.

Another problem is that most of the other men in his group are closeted. They fear losing their jobs if it were known that they're gay. Then there's Ned himself. He's outspoken, abrasive, confrontational, leading to conflict within the group and alienating those who could exert some influence to help.

In the meantime, more men are becoming ill, including Ned's lover, Felix Turner (Matt McGrath), a fashion writer for the New York Times. Some of Ned's colleagues relate wrenching stories about the fate of their friends and loved ones.

When Berkeley Repertory Theatre presented "The Normal Heart" in June 1986, the San Francisco Bay Area was still reeling from the crisis. Leaning on canes or a friend, frail-looking young men with purple lesions (Kaposi's sarcoma) on their skin could be seen at various public events like plays and the opera. Today, the revival of that play evokes sad memories of that tragic time. My review of that production concluded: " 'The Normal Heart' isn't an easy play to watch. Nevertheless, it's an important play, one that moves its audience and provokes deep, disturbing thought about a social climate and crisis that could remain in the forefront for a long time."

Now, 26 years later, the social climate is gradually changing for gays, but AIDS still remains a significant public health challenge, especially given the high expense of the drugs used to treat it. Gay marriage, depicted in the play, is still outlawed in most areas.

This revival, directed by George C. Wolfe, features a standout cast, led by Breen as the angry Ned Weeks and featuring Baker as Emma Brookner, the wheelchair-using physician who contracted polio three months before the introduction of the Salk vaccine. Besides McGrath as Felix, the cast also features Michael Berresse as Mickey Marcus, Nick Mennell as Bruce Niles, Bruce Altman as Ben Weeks (Ned's straight brother), Sean Dugan as Tommy Boatwright, and Tom Berklund, Patrick Alparone and Jon Levenson in various minor roles.

The set is by David Rockwell with costumes by the late Martin Pakledinaz, lighting by David Weiner, music and sound by David Van Tieghem and projections by Batwin + Robin Productions. Leah C. Gardiner is the restaging director.

More than history, "The Normal Heart" is a cogent reminder of the need for people to be aware of how AIDS is transmitted and to try to prevent contracting it or spreading it.

In a letter given to theatergoers after the play and in ACT's "Words on Plays" publication, the still-crusading, still-angry Kramer has this to say, among other things: "Please know that all efforts at prevention and education continue their unending record of abject failure. ... Please know that this is a plague that need not have happened. Please know that this is a plague that has been allowed to happen."

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