|Jennifer Bruckner and Johnnie Torres|
By Tina Arth
Hey, kids! Remember AIDS? Remember red ribbons to show solidarity with people living with this vicious disease? Well, here’s a shocker: despite our obsession with 45’s tweets and cute cat videos, it’s still with us – in the world (estimated 2.1 million new diagnoses in 2015), in the U.S. (estimated 1.2 million people currently living with AIDS), and in Oregon (estimated 6605 people living with AIDS, 50% in Multnomah County). Nothing I’ve ever experienced has brought this awful truth home to me with the power of Twilight Theater Company’s current production of The Normal Heart. Under the direction of Jason A. England, Larry Kramer’s hard-hitting 1985 play about the early years of the AIDS epidemic explodes across the stage with a stark and heart-wrenching intensity, made especially poignant by the fact that we now know (as the author did not) that there was no magic solution – no latter-day Jonas Salk - lurking around the next corner, vaccine in hand.
Even before the play starts, the audience is surrounded by tragic images – the set is a near-barren stage, the backdrop a series of columns inscribed with the scrawled names of prominent AIDS victims. The lights come up on a video about the effect of AIDS on the Portland Gay Men’s Chorus; reinforcing the immediacy of the topic, we see faces of AIDS victims from this iconic local group gradually blurred in a series of snapshots. The play is angry, confrontational, and explicitly political (and not surprisingly, frequently relevant to current topics), yet the author includes compelling stories of love, disillusionment, and even triumph that transcend the overtly political and create a real relationship between the audience and the characters.
Action begins with New York author/gay activist Ned Weeks (Marvin Gray) in the waiting room of Dr. Emma Brookner (Jennifer Clevenger), a physician who is alarmed by the number of gay men who are coming to her with a mysterious batch of symptoms, and frustrated that nobody in the medical establishment or New York city government is willing to acknowledge that there is a looming crisis. Before she allows Weeks to interview her, she insists that he disrobe so that she can check him for signs of the disease – unlike the patient who had just left in tears, Weeks seems to be disease-free. Brookner insists that, until more is known about transmission, someone with a voice in the gay community (i.e., Weeks) needs to mount a campaign against gay sexual activity, in particular, promiscuity. As the show and crisis develop, new characters intertwine their stories with Weeks’; we see relationships torn apart by disease, and feel the anguish of people confronting the specter of death with no guidelines on how to protect themselves.
While most of the characters are gay men, and each does a fine job with at least one emotionally wrenching diatribe, it is Clevenger, the only woman in the play, who gets one of the most powerful scenes. Confined to a wheelchair by childhood polio contracted just before the Salk vaccine became available, her frustration and heartbreak gradually build until her rage – at herself, her patients, and the medical community – finally erupts into a spectacular outburst that leaves the audience thoroughly shaken. Gray manages to make his relentlessly abrasive character appealing, even as he alienates almost everyone around him, and he handles rejection, love, and heartbreak as adeptly as fury. David Alan Morrison is sincere and believable as Weeks’ brother Ben, a straight lawyer who has tried for years to help “cure” Ned of his homosexuality. If your tears have not yet started, the deathbed-wedding scene with Weeks’ lover Felix (Johnnie Torres) will crack even the hardest shell.
England and his cast make The Normal Heart both a ferocious diatribe and a compelling story, with didactic elements held in check by the actors’ delivery. While it’s clearly not a fun show to watch, it is utterly captivating, and absolutely worth an evening out – it’s rare to find so much story and history packed into so few hours.
Twilight Theater Company’s The Normal Heart is playing at the Performing Arts Theater, 7515 N. Brandon Avenue, Portland through Sunday, March 26th with performances at 8 P.M. Friday and Saturday and 3:00 P.M. Sundays. There is also a performance at 8:00 P.M. on Thursday, March 23.