‘The Normal Heart’ in flawless, anguish-filled revival at Arena Stage

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.

“The Normal Heart” recounts the early ’80s in New York, as Breen’s Ned, a writer, attempts to spur gay men to political action, through the AIDS activism of the Gay Men’s Health Crisis (a group Kramer co-founded). It’s a portrait of the cross-currents of gay life as Ned sees them, with regard to the forces causing the disease to spread: the ingrained prejudices of straight society toward homosexuality, and the reluctance of gay men, just beginning to explore the boundaries of sexual liberation, to give up that freedom to stop the contagion.

“The only way we’ll have real pride is when we demand recognition of a culture that isn’t just sexual,” Ned declares in his despairing summation, as the group he’s nurtured, fed up with his harangues, votes him out. What humanizes Ned for us, softens his hyper-abrasiveness, is his love affair with Felix (a smashing and ultimately endearing Luke Macfarlane), a New York Times fashion writer who seems to have it all, and then loses it all to sickness.

Wolfe never lets us forget that this is not only drama, but also history. On the white walls of David Rockwell’s stirring scenery are carved inscriptions of emblematic words and phrases from the days when AIDS entered our vocabulary, terms such as Patient Zero and pneumocystis pneumonia. The set could even be the blueprint for a memorial.

The words that resound with the most emotion, however, materialize in projections on the walls that intermittently become screens for the names of the actual dead. In an echo of the themes of Randy Shilts’s nonfiction account of the crisis, “And the Band Played On,” the honor roll of the AIDS dead grows and grows over the two hours of “The Normal Heart,” dying proof that little is being done.

The living proof is in the emphatic performances, starting with Breen, who tempers Ned’s obnoxious self-righteousness with layers of warmth and integrity. Wettig is a sensational successor to Barkin; the control that medical authority confers transforms into an unhinged outrage as Wettig’s Emma looks upon her own futility. Berresse, known primarily for work in musicals, is here a revelation. And in other key turns, Christopher J. Hanke and John Procaccino develop textured portrayals for, respectively, an AIDS volunteer and Ned’s loving if conflicted older brother.

You come to understand in the naked fury of “The Normal Heart” that the voices of history can, in fact, feel as if they are speaking directly to you. And in Wolfe’s wrenchingly devastating treatment, the ghosts speak loudest of all.

The Normal Heart

by Larry Kramer. Directed by George C. Wolfe. Sets, David Rockwell; costumes,

Martin Pakledinaz; lighting, David Weiner;

sound and original music, David van Tieghem; projections, Batwin + Robin Productions.

With Chris Dinolfo, Tom Berklund, Jon Levenson. About 2 hours, 10 minutes.

Through July 29 at Arena Stage,

1101 Sixth St. SW. Call 202-488-3300

or visit www.arenastage.org.

Peter Marks joined the Washington Post as its chief theater critic in 2002. Prior to that he worked for nine years at the New York Times, on the culture, metropolitan and national desks, and spent about four years as its off-Broadway drama critic.
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