At Salem Theatre Company’s gut-wrenching production of Larry Kramer’s multi-award winning drama, “The Normal Heart,” set designer Nathan Bertone creates a sterile atmosphere in the 50-seat space that nonetheless stirs.
Some theatergoers are actually seated on stage with the actors, and others flank them on two sides, close enough to rub shoulders with the cast.
The stage’s stark, white floor, hospital bed and few chairs are punctuated by a full-length blackboard wall, inscribed with chalk-scrawled memorials of people’s loved ones who succumbed from AIDS. Theatergoers are invited to write messages, adding their own loved ones’ names.
Being so tightly integrated with the action and actors is overpowering, especially during traumatic, tragic scenes. Several theatergoers sighed loudly and wept openly.
“The Normal Heart” focuses on the rise of the HIV-AIDS crisis in New York City in 1981-4, as seen by fictitious activist-writer Ned Weeks, the gay Jewish-American founder of an HIV advocacy group, and that group’s efforts to increase public awareness, desperately hoping to affect treatment for this illness that spread like wildfire globally. The play also provides young adults with a hard-hitting glimpse of society’s ugly treatment of gay and transgendered folks during the AIDS epidemic and later.
Kramer, renowned playwright, LGBT rights activist, founder of AIDS service organization Gay Men’s Health Crisis and AIDS advocacy group ACT UP, based his mostly autobiographical play on authentic events and people, but changed their names. The late Dr. Linda Laubenstein, medical sympathizer stricken with polio, is resurrected as Dr. Emma Brookner, whom Salem’s Caroline Watson-Felt vividly portrays.
Director Catherine Bertrand wisely chose Kyle Gregory to portray lead role Ned Weeks. He adds a personal layer to the “small, loud-mouthed” activist. His father, Kenneth Gregory, (whose name is inscribed on the theater wall), died of AIDS in 1992. Ned’s a bundle of uptight energy, who’s later ousted from his own organization for being too inflammatory.
Salem State University senior Sam Lewis sensitively portrays Weeks’ handsome, suave New York Times writer-lover, Felix Turner. Together, Lewis and Gregory are deeply moving during affectionate, loving scenes.
Also outstanding is Robert Cope as Ben Weeks, Ned’s successful lawyer brother. Ben supports Ned financially and emotionally, but cannot accept his homosexuality as “normal”.
Adding clout to their roles are Andrew LeBlanc, portraying Ned’s Jewish, gay, make-no-waves friend, Mickey Marcus; C.J. DiOrio as young Southern gay activist-mediator Tommy Boatwright; and Alex Portenko, portraying closet gay, Marine-Green Beret hero, Bruce Niles.Colin Colford and Francis Norton round out the cast.
Sound designer Will Demmick, projectionist Matt Gray and Tyrone Miller’s lighting illuminate and intensify AIDS’ fast-mounting fatal statistics within three years, individuals’ inner struggles and losses, and the group’s frustrating struggle to incite support.
Try not to miss “The Normal Heart”. It closes Saturday, but its message pulsates strongly long after.
Two-act award-winning drama by Larry Kramer at Salem Theatre Co., 90 Lafayette St., Salem: Thursday-Saturday, at 7:30 p.m. Salemtheatre.com .