This Saturday, my first official weekend back in Salem, I had the pleasure of being invited to attend the final performance of Larry Kramer’s “The Normal Heart” by the Salem Theatre Company (STC). Directed by Catherine Bertrand for the STC, “The Normal Heart” is an emotionally charged and thought-provoking story about a group of gay activists living, and sadly dying, during the AIDS epidemic in 1980s New York City. They put up a years-long, tragic fight to bring this deadly virus to the consciousness of a society seemingly turning a blind eye.
When I took my place in the theater on Lafayette Street, I was surrounded by black walls filled with names written in chalk – names of those whose lives had been claimed by AIDS, including the name of lead actor Kyle Gregory’s father, Kenneth Gregory, who passed away in 1992. The mood of the crowd before the performance even began already felt anxious and somewhat somber. Once the lights dimmed a bit more and the actors and actresses took the stage, I began to understand why other reviewers had written such heartfelt responses to the production.
Kyle Gregory, a Salem State graduate and first-time STC actor, starred as the eccentric, bluntly speaking, ultra-passionate writer Ned Weeks, a character based on Kramer’s own experience as an activist during this time. Gregory’s portrayal of Ned truly had me, as well as the other audience members, absolutely captivated.
After first learning about the AIDS virus and seeing it claim the lives of many of his friends and acquaintances in a very short amount of time, Ned began to work tirelessly with a group of friends to make the danger of the disease known to all it could affect, and all who he believed could help in doing something about it. Ned’s in-your-face, brazen tactics rub lots of folks the wrong way, including those he is closest to, bringing setbacks upon him. Things only continue to flare when his lover, Felix Turner, a New York Times reporter played by Sam Lewis, becomes diagnosed.
As an audience member, I felt true pity for Ned, someone so desperate to stop something so terrible that blatant honesty seemed the only path to take even if no one wanted to hear it that way. On an infinitely smaller scale I, and I’m sure many others, can relate to the feeling of hopelessness that not getting your point across incurs, and how it makes you just want to scream. One can only imagine how Ned would feel with an issue so grave continuing to fall on deaf ears. The anxiety only rises between each scene when dates and numbers flash upon a screen indicating the death toll from the disease at that time, with audio news clips in the background. The numbers increase at an alarming rate in a small timespan.
Gregory did a terrific job portraying the deep-seated frustrations, loss of control and melancholy that seeped into Weeks as his organization, which was created to help spread the word and obtain funding to fight the disease, spirals.
Outside of Gregory, “The Normal Heart” featured an outstanding cast well-deserving of their standing ovation. Caroline Watson-Felt brought murmurs of “incredible performance!” through the audience as Dr. Emma Brookner, the doctor who sees the most AIDS patients in New York and desperately fights tooth and nail to learn more about the disease and gain support from an apathetic medical community. Dr. Brookner is bound to a wheelchair, but that does not stop her in any way from being a powerful presence. A scene where her anger boils over after funding for research continues to be denied earned a round of applause, usually reserved for the end of the production.
As mentioned before, Sam Lewis brings a touching performance to the play as Felix Turner, Ned’s boyfriend who is the calm to his storm and shows him how to truly love and be loved until death does them part. Alex Portenko plays the closeted former Green Beret Bruce Niles who battles with wanting to make an impact on the crisis while not wanting to stir up any controversy. Portenko’s talent is really showcased in a heartwrenching scene where Bruce finally breaks down in the face of another tragic death from AIDS. CJ DiOrio brings a more tranquil presence to the stage as the level-headed Southerner Tommy Boatwright who tries to keep the other men from their bitter fights. Andy LeBlanc passionately plays Mickey Marcus, an employee of the city Health Department worrying about the safety of his job while being involved in spreading the word about AIDS.
Robert Cope is perfect in the role of Ben Weeks, Ned’s older brother who is a millionaire lawyer and whose persistent way of seeing Ned differently has been a point of contention between the two for years. Colin Colford as Hiram, the exasperating representative of the mayor, and Francis Norton as Craig (the first character to die of AIDS) and Grady, another activist, bring stellar performances to the production as well.
The time in which I saw “The Normal Heart” happened to be during Pride Month, and the day after the Supreme Court legalized gay marriage in all fifty states. This allowed me to see that in the 30+ years since the era of the play, our country has come a long way towards compassion, tolerance and love for all – although in my eyes, it shouldn’t have taken three decades and we have a ways to go, but we should celebrate the victories along the way. However, the frightening numbers of those dying from AIDS in 2015 in our country and around the world show that 30 years later, we still have so much more to do in finding a cure for this devastating virus. Hopefully influential plays like “The Normal Heart” will continue to bring this issue to light in the public eye, and one day I hope to see the numbers diminishing as fast as they increase.
Salem Theatre Company, 90 Lafayette Street, Salem, MA, 978.790.8546.