Wednesday, February 20, 2013

AUM: "The Normal Heart"

Theatre AUM is currently staging Larry Kramer's quasi-autobiographical The Normal Heart, a sometimes angry and heart wrenching call to action on HIV/AIDS. Written in 1985, and set between 1981 and 1984 before AIDS had a name and when a small group of gay men desperately attempted to get the attention of government and society to do something about a mysterious disease that was killing so many people around the world, this play's subject is as relevant today as then.

Played on a bare stage with minimal furniture shifted by the actors to determine multiple locations, and flanked by a set of large colorful panels emblazoned with pop culture iconography and the names of famous AIDS victims, set designer Ashley Stanaland and director Val Winkelman and their acting ensemble create some vivid pictures that support the fluidity of Kramer's script.

The play at first seems somewhat quaint by today's standards and our current knowledge of the devastating effects of AIDS; but it is essential for us to know our history and to learn from it. Today's persistent reluctance to publicly address AIDS, the heads-in-the-ground posture that ignoring it will make it go away, and the misguided belief still that it is a gay man's disease -- let alone the alarming statistics of the millions of deaths that have accrued from only 41 in the time of the play's action -- give The Normal Heart even more significance today.

Ned Weeks [Cushing Phillips, III], aka Larry Kramer, is the ringleader of a small group of gay activists who are concerned that a mysterious disease -- "it" is all they can call the "immune system" plague according to Dr. Emma Brookner [Amber Baldwin] -- is killing several of their friends, and spreading worldwide. As their requests for media attention and government funding are ignored or put off over four years, their frustrations build as they try to play by the rules while more of their number succumb to "it".

Whether intentional or not, the small coterie of organizers -- Ned, Craig [Mark Dasinger, Jr.], Mickey [Chris Howard], Tommy [Daniel Brown], David [Lee Bridges] -- possess such shared attitudes and behavior that render them indistinguishable from one another; but not for long. While it is difficult to invest much feeling for any of them to begin with, when they are shown in private moments, they become more than mere voices for the persistent litany of facts about the AIDS crisis and the obstacles they face.

Ned is the center of the piece, and Mr. Phillips takes "the Ned Weeks School of Outrage" to heart, building from a bit of a whiner-bully in the early scenes, to a bombastic threat to the movement which needs the more temperate behavior of the closeted Bruce [Sam Wootten is a model of control in his AUM debut] as the public face of the organization, to the anguish he feels when his successful "straight" lawyer-brother Ben [David Wilson] will not risk public association with a gay group that needs the straight world's support for verification of its worth, to the confrontations with Hiram Keebler [Michael Moskowitz], a representative of the mayor's office who can make or break the movement with the stroke of a pen, to the insistent prodding of Ms. Baldwin's concerned Emma whose determination despite the lack of support from her own medical profession urges him forward, to a concerned lover as his partner Felix [Mark Hunter's natural demeanor is an excellent contrast to Mr. Phillips' bombast] succumbs to the disease.

The Normal Heart is a sobering account of the early days of HIV/AIDS activism, and an indication that the battle to combat it is not yet over. Thanks to AUM for having the courage to bring some notice to the Montgomery community of an issue that needs its support.