In the final 40 minutes of the flawless Arena Stage revival of “The Normal Heart,” one harrowing meltdown seems to incite another — a cascade of anguish as a terrifyingly unknowable killer bears down on a great metropolis.
It starts with Michael Berresse’s shattering speech as Mickey, a gay city-health employee, crumbling under the weight of the body count. It builds in the heartbreaking account by Nick Mennell, as ex-Green Beret Bruce, of the humiliations endured by his dying lover, on a last flight home. It shifts into fever pitch as Patricia Wettig, playing a New York physician treating men with AIDS even before the disease has a name, all but loses it as she denounces a medical and government establishment that has cast her adrift with the dead and dying.
By the time the remarkable Patrick Breen, as the piece’s antagonistic protagonist, Ned, delivers an impassioned eulogy over the gay community’s failure to fight for its own, your nerves are so frayed and your tear ducts given such a workout that sitting still and untouched becomes an insurmountable challenge.
“The Normal Heart,” written by Larry Kramer and first seen in New York in 1985, has taken an unconscionably long time to be produced at a top-of-the-line theater here (Washington Shakespeare Company staged it in the mid-1990s). But in director George C. Wolfe’s stark, fleet and passionately raw production, amends begin to be made for that sin of omission. The show, in Arena’s Kreeger Theater, is a kissing cousin to the Broadway mounting by Wolfe last year starring Joe Mantello, Ellen Barkin and John Benjamin Hickey that won the Tony for best revival. And the Washington version is in every respect a superb descendant.
For Wolfe, the former artistic head of New York’s Joseph Papp Public Theater, has discovered the essence of “The Normal Heart.” It’s not in its righteous, Cassandra-like polemic, which seemed so furious and provocative in the early days of the AIDS plague that it was all anybody talked about. What makes the play so vibrant today — and what ensures its place in the annals of important American drama — is that Wolfe has shown us “The Normal Heart’s” fragile beating heart.
It certainly exposes an urgent deficiency in public health policy, one that will resonate with many participants of the International AIDS Conference to be held in Washington in late July (when the play will still be running). The big second-act speech by Wettig’s Emma Brookner, expressing an anger at institutional foot-dragging and elitism that appears to issue in bolts from the actress’s spleen, can’t help but strike a chord with any researcher who sees what others have yet to.
But a theatergoer of any age or background can relate to what Wolfe and the 10 members of his crackerjack cast identify as the dramatic fuels of “The Normal Heart”: the panicked sense of helplessness as men’s bodies erupt in sores and they quickly die; the numbing terror as an epidemic spreads and a realization sinks in that society is not rallying to your side; the bottomless anger in feeling that your own community’s behavior is making matters worse; the sledgehammering wallop of reality that comes with letting a loved one go.