Oftentimes I am skeptical of plays covering the AIDS epidemic — it’s not because I’m blind or ignorant to the horror of the crisis or uncompassionate towards those affected. It’s because I am so invested in that crisis and the fact that the LGBTQ+ community is living in that era’s shadow through no fault of our own that I have trouble rooting for a piece of theatre where the protagonist and their plucky sidekicks are straight, white, and just down on their luck. Even when there is a gay protagonist too often too much of the show is played for laughs or it hides the true horror of what went on in big cities in the ’80s. We focus on one or two people and there is no sense of the reach of loss and terror that occurred. New Epic Theater’s The Normal Heart, however, is not that story.
The Normal Heart is a visceral, unflinching, unforgiving look at a plague that shouldn’t have happened and a government that let it, and it is a beautiful love story about chosen family (and how horrible and dysfunctional they become when living in constant terror and heartbreak) and yes, a tragic romantic plot that actually succeeds in both it’s tragedy and it’s romance.
The Normal Heart opens with our protagonist Ned Weeks sitting on the floor writing on his typewriter as a soundtrack of Queen music swells behind him. We see our ensemble cast come in and engage in a beautiful, devastating choreographed piece that tells us what we need to know about the inciting incident: gay and bisexual men are getting ill and dying very suddenly, leaving their chosen family to grieve and clean up the mess through their own confusion.
I’d never been to a New Epic show before, but I have been to shows at the Lab Theater before. If I’m being completely honest, it is not my favorite venue. It’s huge and cavernous which seems like an asset except sound gets lost depending on where you’re sitting, and sight lines are a beast. Furthermore, I have rarely seen a show properly fill the space — until now. New Epic’s theatre is seemingly simple — a couple of rows of old fashioned desks, a platform for the doctor’s office, and a really inventive use of practical lighting: low hanging flouroscents to mark offices, blinding white LEDs on the floor of the doctor’s office, and lamps in Weeks’ humble apartment.
This was a cast of eight and the aforementioned modest set, and not once did the space feel empty or improperly used. The cast worked hard to cover up the sound issues in the space, and while sometimes you see that work, it’s never enough of a distraction to pull you out of the script. Costumes are modest, realistic outfits with enough character in each piece to see that thought went into them.
Theatre is a tricky art sometimes. There are a million different pieces and so often designers and performers fight to prove, however passively or subtly, that their piece is the most important one. New Epic has created enough of a community amongst it’s artists that everything blended together for the good of the play, which ironically, makes each member of the team stand out more to the discerning viewer.
The Normal Heart is undeniably a play about the AIDS crisis in the early ’80s. I can’t and won’t church it up or soften such a hard, important piece of theatre. That’s not to say that beauty and love I promised earlier isn’t in there, but it is to say that it is secondary to the anger and hostility that I felt towards medical, city, and federal officials featured in the story. It is secondary to the sense of complete devastation the characters feel as one-by-one their friends and lovers die off — as characters we in the audience fall in love with die off.
That idea of community and family is important and complementary to the story at large, but it does not mistake itself for the main event. The Normal Heart specifically chronicles the early ’80s when no one had even given AIDS a name yet. Medical officials thought gay men should stop having sex entirely not because they wanted to shame them back into the closet but because they didn’t know how else to keep them safe from certain death. This show is set in New York City, one of the worst hit by this crisis, and The Normal Heart shows every aspect of that, from city officials refusing to meet with our characters to the very personal heartbreak those affected faced. The story itself centers around Weeks’ decision to found the Gay Men’s Health Crisis (a real advocacy group started by the playwright around the time the story takes place) to try to stop the spread of the virus and have their voices heard by those in positions of power.
As the story progresses, we see Weeks’ chosen family structure begin to crumble as Bruce, the closeted “good cop” of the group is chosen as president of it. Bruce is not Ned’s version of a revolutionary, and even speaks disparagingly of the trans women who started Stonewall (I do want to give a content warning that a lot of the language around this is outdated and may be triggering for transgender audience members. It was the nomenclature of the time, but that doesn’t make it safe or easy to hear in present day) and Bruce and Ned butt heads pretty much the entire script as tensions mount from all over, even getting into a fistfight at one point. The two are like family however, and when Bruce loses the person most important to him, it is Ned that is there the most for him, even as betrayal at the GMHC remains eminent.
Also central to the plot is Mickey, a public servant pulling double duty as the writer of a city-approved group of pamphlets about public health that refuse to acknowledge the growing crisis, and the column writer for the iconic Native, a more underground outlet about gay life in NYC. Mickey’s story is heartbreaking on a completely different, more personal level. We see him lose faith in the government he’s spent his whole life happily serving and suffering an identity crisis as a result on top of everything else the looming threat of the virus spreading causes.
My favorite character was Tommy, a newbie to this social circle and group who quickly graduates from little brother eager to help to big brother calling everyone on their crap. Tommy has the biggest heart of the characters and at one point he stands on a desk and talks directly to the audience about his distress and the depth of his grief. “Memorial services, that’s our social life now” he says wryly, really driving home the hopelessness of their situation.
We also have Ben Weeks, Ned’s brother who has fought for a place of privilege as a straight lawyer, and is willing to help Ned and the Gay Men’s Health Crisis but only to a point. He does come around somewhat in the end—the love between the two brothers is clear from the onset and it takes tragedy striking about three quarters of the way through to get them even remotely on the same page.
Dr. Emma Brookner serves as a stark contrast to the uncaring, unseen medical panels and grant funders as a passionate patient advocate who wants to cure this thing once and for all, and who keeps coming up on stumbling block after stumbling block in the system that is supposed to protect her patients. In direct opposition to her, though they never meet, is Hiram Keebler, a closeted aide to the mayor who’s job it is to keep the din the GMHC are causing at bay.
Finally there’s Felix—Weeks’ lover who’s getting sicker by the day. Felix never wanted to be a fighter or to be a part of this, but between his sickness and his absolute love and devotion to Ned, we see him trying to fight through the virus, for his love, for his humanity, and we are pulling for him every step of the way even as we realize it’s in vain.
These characters themselves are stunning—to write an entire cast of such rich, complex characters and then put them through a ringer that will change who they are forever is no small feat. A larger feat is playing such characters, and this is one of the finest casts I have seen in the Twin Cities in quite some time. There is not a weak member of this cast. They are all supposed to anger us, break our heart, or both and they are wildly successful in fulfilling these duties. One thing we don’t see on stage nearly enough is a cast of gay men who’s love is deep but platonic, and this concept of chosen family and all of the crap that entails sticks in our heart and warms it even as it being shattered to pieces by other parts of the play. It’s a complicated script about complicated characters going through hell, and this cast is phenomenal. They not only nailed it, but I suspect added further nuance and care to their roles than is even required. I can’t even pull out a favorite because everybody is that good.
In fact, this is honestly one of the best plays I have ever seen in over a decade and a half of creating, watching, and generally obsessing over theatre.. I have virtually no criticisms of it that don’t go back to the Lab as a venue and even those New Epic overrode many of. Stodala’s direction is flawless and I am so hard on other directors sometimes. James Kunz’ movement work adds an entirely different element to script that I didn’t anticipate and now I can’t imagine the show without. The added soundtrack and how it played in gave the show an ethereal nightmare-ish element that the script alone was likely lacking.
This show was brilliantly conceived and almost perfectly realized. There are only three other shows I have seen in my life that touched me this much. One was about co-dependence, one was about race in the media, and one was the first time I saw Next to Normal, a Broadway musical about a bipolar parent that is deeply, profoundly personal for me. The Normal Heart fits right in there as being a piece that pierces you right to the core and makes you question the things you thought were safe.
As an activist involved in many high-profile movements or groups right now, Weeks’ scream “We aren’t yelling loud enough” as he dissolved into hopelessness in one scene made me want to burst into tears right then and there, because my God, I have felt this in my own soul so deeply lately. Then at the end, Weeks’ has a speech about how it feels like all of this work was for nothing—except then he tells a story proving that no, nothing he or other gay activists at the time were doing was for nothing. It gives you just enough hope to leave the audience and to keep fighting the good fight, but it doesn’t do what so many socially conscious pieces do and end on a note of “everything is fine now.” The fight is worth it, but AIDS almost wiped out an entire generation in the process. The Normal Heart doesn’t gloss over that and it shouldn’t. Our government, our medical professionals, all of the institutions we are supposed to trust turned their back on the queer community COMPLETELY when this crisis hit, refusing to even call it a crisis let alone the epidemic it was, and The Normal Heart isn’t going to let us go home and forget that. Change can be fought for and won, but fighting is not a passive thing. It requires blood and sacrifice and complete abandonment of reason at time.
Nothing about this show is easy, but that is precisely why it is so successful and so awe-inspiring. There is a director’s note in the program about why this show, and Coriolanus by William Shakespeare that it is running in rep with, were chosen, and the short answer is that they are both wildly political plays about having your voice silenced in already horrible circumstances. As a theatre baby in college, a professor remarked off-handedly that the best scripts prove that the more things change, the more they stay the same. The Normal Heart captures this sentiment about a story often glossed over or told as one person’s tragedy, and it makes you want to fight the system that remains true in even harder. This play is shockingly relevant albeit allegorical when juxtaposed with many communities today, and while I couldn’t see Coriolanus in time to cover the rep shows, I am champing at the bit to make it there regardless and see what New Epic does with that already timeless, undervalued show.
The Normal Heart, directed by Joseph Stodola for New Epic Theater, runs in repertory with Coriolanus at the Lab Theatre through April 16th. You really, really don’t want to miss out. More info including ticket sales available at New Epic Theater.