Epic Theatre Weighs The Normal Heart

NH1The Normal Heart is an heroic production about a group of young men in New York City in the midst of the early 1980s AIDS crisis. Do not dismiss this as “old news.” It is not intense because of fireworks on stage, highly emotional performances, or even lots of shouting. Its intensity washes over the audience because it is not a “what if” story, it is a “this really happened” story. For younger people today with a wakeful awareness, such as co-directors  Kevin Broccoli and Ashley Arnold of Epic Theatre, and for those of us who watched dear friends wither and die before our eyes, the fear and horror of the AIDS epidemic in the early 80s still resonates deeply. Epic Theatre has assembled a brilliant ensemble of talent to bring the characters of the play to life through that veil of horror.

The Normal Heart, by Larry Kramer, is currently playing in Cranston, RI, at the smaller venue at the Artists’ Exchange through October 26. Even today, this is a brave choice to present to audiences. We never seem to get enough fiction, but fact remains nearly taboo. The more intimate space at 50 Rolfe Square fits perfectly with the play. It makes the audience feel part of what is happening, creates a bit of claustrophobia, which is appropriate, and one cannot look away from the particularly difficult scenes of people dying before one’s eyes.

Playing close to type, Kevin Broccoli plays Ned Weeks, the agitator, the loud mouth, the firebrand, who drags his friends into grass roots action when other friends start dying all around them. Broccoli is a vibrant, yet necessarily nagging energy. Dillon Medina is natural and strong as Bruce. He is fiercely private, yet serves as the public persona people like. Even in Bruce’s dedication to his cause and his community, he is in constant fear that his executive job will disappear if he is revealed as gay.  That fear is shared by the rest of the group, which includes a hospital administrator and a writer for The New York Times. This was 30 years ago, when being exposed publicly as gay could be as damaging as being publicly exposed as a pedophile today.

Hanna Lum as Emma, one of the few doctors researching and treating the new, unidentified virus, is nearly as militant as Ned Weeks. Lum strikes the right balance of compassion and outrage. Emma, wheelchair bound, represents another plague – polio – that ravaged young people. But that disease did not have to fight the Center for Disease Control for acknowledgement and assistance.

A fact that makes the story particularly poignant is that young people in general, including the homosexual community, had, in the 60s and 70s, been liberated to celebrate their sexuality. In the 70s, just about every college coed I knew was on the pill, and by junior year (mid-70s for me) gay men had come into their own. At least on campus they had, and especially in the theater department. In fact, both my sister and I were disappointed when we found out each of our “secret” college crushes were gay.  We didn’t like them any less, but all possibility of a boyfriend/girlfriend relationship was lost. And then, we lost them forever.

Near the end of the second act, Mickey, played by Christopher Verleger, who had been a constant, level-headed contributor to the activist group, suddenly explodes. Under the mixed pressures of keeping his job, supporting the cause, staying in the closet, concern for his partner, the fear, the politics, the unknowns, and the accusations that they were literally murdering each other, Mickey melts down in front of everyone. Verleger gives an amazing performance, articulating all that the men were thinking and feeling, but no one dared express.

Michael Shallcross as Tommy gives a humorous, yet intellectual performance. He appears selfish at first, yet his compassion is revealed as events unfold. And yes, even in this often grim play there is laughter. David Alves, as Ned’s lawyer brother Ben, gives a measured interpretation of the political pressures even the straight community faced at the time. The mayor of New York City finally sends an assistant, Hiram (Jim Shelton). Hiram is the embodiment of the Janus figure so prevalent in politics. Obviously gay to the group, Hiram toes the party line and tells Ned’s group the mayor will never meet with them. Shelton gives us the bad guy you love to hate.

Michael Puppi is Felix, Ned’s one and only true love relationship. Puppi is remarkable, comfortable with himself, his love for Ned, and his belief in the positive. Felix is the one, calm, constant – the anchor in the group swirling around him like a merry-go-round. Ovations to Michael Puppi for keeping his acting cool in the emotional blender, which lends a sense of reality to all the proceedings. Rounding out the cast in this outstanding production is Daniel Larson as Craig, and Ronald Lewis as Grady.

The dialogue is familiar, “Who thought having unprotected sex could kill you?” That’s because I heard it first-hand from my own friends. They didn’t know what was killing them. They didn’t know how to stop it. And no one would help them. I’ll never forget their bewilderment and terror. Epic Theatre invites members of the audience to write names of people they know who are HIV positive, or have died from AIDS, on the wall with chalk. I wrote about eight names on the board, although I do know more. I started to return to my seat, and then realized I had to go back and cross the names out. A group of smart, talented, sensitive individuals, they’ve all been long dead.

Epic Theatre Company is a proud member of the RI Theater Alliance. Epic is currently in residence at The Artists’ Exchange in Cranston, RI. For more information email: epictheatrecompanyri@gmail.com.

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