AIDS drama is still heart-wrenching

Tuesday, February 22, 2005
Arizona Republic

I was wrong. In a recent article, I dismissed The Normal Heart as a history play, one that would be staged, if at all, because of its landmark status as one of the first scripts to deal overtly with the AIDS crisis.

Too full of dry facts, I thought, too angry, too vindictive. Larry Kramer's drama would go the way of all agitprop, speaking to its time and then becoming a paragraph or two in the textbooks.

As I watched the audience file out of eleven/twenty/one theatre Saturday, I realized how far off the mark I was. People clutched the arms of their partners or friends. Many faces were wet with tears. They had been on an emotional roller coaster that affected them deeply.

About 20 years after it was written, The Normal Heart still has the power.

Most of Saturday's audience was too young to remember the early 1980s, when the play takes place. AIDS is still a factor in their lives, but their experience is different from that of Kramer's characters. Today, medical advances mean people are living with AIDS. In Kramer's play, they are dying of it and doctors don't have a clue why.

The Stray Cat Theatre production spares no one, gay or straight, in bringing that terrifying time to life. Ron May has long since proved himself one of our most brilliant young directors. His meticulous attention to detail, his sure timing, his unflinching approach to raw emotion, make him the perfect choice to helm this nightmare journey into the past.

He has filled the cast with some of the Valley's finest young actors. Joey Moore, so good in Stray Cat's This Is Our Youth, is even better as Kramer's alter ego, a writer who rails against the refusal of the establishment to pay serious attention to the new disease. Scott Campbell tears at the heart as his lover, who falls prey to the killer.

Benjamin Siemon, David Weiss and Samuel E. Wilkes are equally fine as the writer's friends, caught up in his passion and their own fears. Scott C. Jeffers and Polly Chapman add their considerable skills as the writer's straight brother and the doctor who is consumed by her inability to keep her young patients alive.

Make no mistake, The Normal Heart is still full of facts, as it chronicles the nation's slow response to AIDS. It is still vindictive, for Kramer cannot forgive those who failed their responsibilities. And it is still angry, one of the angriest plays you will ever see.

Most of the dialogue is delivered at a shout, making it easy to criticize the piece as one-note and the people as one-dimensional. But don't tell that to Saturday's audience. They know that Kramer and his characters had plenty to yell about.

The Normal Heart