Theater Review: "The Normal Heart" At Arena Stage
The play follows activist Ned Weeks (Patrick Breen), a fiery man who, at the advice of a doctor (Patricia Wettig), becomes worried about a new deadly disease that is almost exclusively targeting the gay population of New York. Ned starts a group to disseminate knowledge about the mysterious disease, and the dashing-but-closeted Bruce Niles (Nick Mennell) is elected president. In the meanwhile, Ned finds true love at last with Felix Turner (Luke MacFarlane), a culture writer for the New York Times, a publication that, like the mayor of the city, is almost entirely ignoring the outbreak.
Certainly, the play's flaws are far more apparent upon a second viewing. There's an old mantra applied to every kind of storytelling: "show, but don't tell." Larry Kramer's play does an awful lot of telling, with very little showing, especially in the first act, which gets bogged down in exposition at times. The second act moves along much more quickly, though it is shamelessly emotionally manipulative.
Is "The Normal Heart" an imperfect and brash play? Yes. But to my mind, the purpose of theater is to communicate an important message in a way that really speaks to the audience, and this play certainly does. As I once again hear a chorus of sniffles as the cast made their bows, I couldn't help but respect the affecting power of "The Normal Heart," and hope that it will inspire further change. While the gay rights movement has come a long way since the events of the play (and even since it appeared on Broadway last summer), it still has a long way to go, and if this play helps to inspire change, I can't really begrudge it.