"THE NORMAL HEART," Larry Kramer's passionate and compassionate drama about the AIDS siege, is part war saga, part social history, part lecture and love story and lament. This important play, in a fluid and fluent production at Baltimore's Center Stage through March 2, resulted from gay activist Kramer's personal reaction to his own confrontations with AIDS, and Kramer has expanded his experience to the universal.
If "The Normal Heart" sprawls somewhat, it's because Kramer is trying to pack it all -- the individual and the communal horror of six years -- into two hours and 20 minutes.
He nearly does it, too: the gay struggle for acceptance running into this new obstacle; the difficulties men face loving each other; the strange silence from the government and media even after an epidemic was declared; the cold-sweat terror of discovering the symptoms; the heart-tearing loss of losing a friend or a lover.
Like Kramer, who co-founded an AIDS crisis organization, his dramatic alter ego Ned Weeks is an unwilling hero, thrown into the fray when friends start dying around him. But Kramer doesn't canonize himself in his stage portrait; he draws himself as he has been described by others: stubborn, abrasive and aggressive.
Weeks isn't "politically correct": He's outspokenly critical of gay politics and lifestyles, and becomes even more unpopular when he launches into a jeremiad proclaiming that the party's over -- that making love can be lethal. For this heresy he's eventually dismissed by the crisis group that began in his own living room, and his loss is compounded when the disease takes the lover it took him a lifetime to find.
Based in fact, "The Normal Heart" is necessarily, unrelentingly grim, but it is also full of self-mocking wit and brave humor. Kramer howls with rage, indicting particularly New York's Mayor Koch and the national press for what he sees as a conspiracy of silence. He exempts no one, including the plague's victims, whom he harangues for their persistent denial.
The urgency of the generally good acting, directed by Michael Engler, vitalizes even the densest of Kramer's speeches. As Weeks, Peter Zapp finds, along with his character's sputtering rage, an appealing side. Peter Webster is moving as he goes from vigor to decay as Ned's doomed lover Felix; and Brenda Wehle is stern and stoic as Dr. Emma Brookner, wheelchair-bound from polio, frustrated in her pioneering work with AIDS patients by indifference and bureaucratic foot-dragging.
"The Normal Heart" was to be presented at Washington's Studio Theater this spring, but production disagreements postponed its appearance here indefinitely, so the commendable Baltimore production is the nearest opportunity to see this big-mouthed, big- hearted play.
THE NORMAL HEART -- At Baltimore's Center Stage.through March 2.