Fred Hunting, Claudio Raygoza, Joel Miller
One of the best, most moving shows of 2016 must close this Sunday, December 23.
In many ways, Ion Theatre’s intimate space is the perfect site for Larry Kramer’s bulging epic about the early years of the HIV/AIDS crisis. There’s no escape. You can’t avert your eyes from the frustration of the few alerted to the plague or from the thousands who, through denial and neglect, refused to take the rising death toll seriously. Years passed before full recognition began.
Larry Kramer founded the Gray Men’s Health Crisis and was such a tireless — and loud — crusader he and the organization finally parted ways. They refused to adopt his aggressive tactics. Kramer lambasted the “paper of record” (New York Times) and all other non-believers with such fury he was one of the major voices — if not the major voice— of the crisis.
In the play, Kramer is Ned Weeks. In short scenes that move with the speed of the spreading virus, Weeks bangs against walls, both public and private, and in the end may win the battle but at a horrible price.
For Ion, Claudio Raygoza, who codirected with Glenn Paris, makes Kramer as obnoxious and egocentric as he is absolutely right. And almost alone: “We’re living through war,” he shouts. The world “acts as if nothing is happening — and we’re all in the same country!”
Kim Strassburger, Daren Scott, and Alexander Guzman do some of their best work to date as Dr. Emma Brookner (who recognizes the pandemic long before her colleagues), Kramer’s reluctant brother Ben, and Kramer’s ill-starred partner Felix Turner. But they are so invested in their characters and stark, gripping scenes, one realizes their achievement only after the curtain falls.
Normal Heart moves from July 1981 to May 1984 — over 30 years ago, and yet the play has gained in relevance. Along with an urge to side with Weeks and scream one’s brains out at naysayers, memories of victims, from that time and the ensuing years, haunt the stage and the house seats.
The title comes from W.H. Auden’s poem, “September 1, 1939,” written at the outbreak of World War II:
Defenseless under the night/
Our world in stupor lies;/
Yet dotted everywhere,/
Ironic points of light/
Flash out wherever the Just/
Exchange their messages:/
May I, composed like them/
Of Eros and of dust,/
Beleaguered by the same/
Negation and despair,/
Show an affirming flame./
Playing through December 23