An abrasive, outspoken author is being examined for early signs of AIDS, the plague that kills its victims with ruthless efficiency by shutting down their immune systems.
"I hear you've got a big mouth," says the crisp, equally outspoken female doctor who's doing the examining.
"Is big mouth a symptom?" he asks, dryly.
"No," she shoots back. "A cure."
That exchange, which takes place in the early moments of "The Normal Heart," is curiously representative of all that follows. Larry Kramer's dramatization of the early years of the AIDS epidemic in New York City is fierce, passionate and argumentative. It howls, it protests, it accuses. It has a very big mouth, indeed. And while a big mouth cannot cure the ravages of a disease, it can combat apathy, ignorance and prejudice.
On view through March 2, Center Stage's admirable production of the play is unflinching. If the material is grim -- how could it be otherwise? -- there is nonetheless something exhilarating about the enterprise: an urgency that comes when theater is ripped, bleeding and bruised, out of the very fabric of society.
True, an acute social conscience does not always produce the finest drama. One need only think of the anti-Vietnam protest plays of the 1960s and '70s, or the early eruptions of rage that marked the black theater, to be reminded that time has a way of leaving the issue-oriented writer high and dry. In strictly literary terms, "The Normal Heart" is not first-rate drama. It's too manipulative, too determined to pound its message home, too pressed for time to stand back and entertain a larger perspective. People, after all, are dying.
But in the short run, I'm not sure its deficiencies matter. It is a play for right now. Like a news flash, suddenly intruding on a television game show, it catches the audience in the gut and draws it up straight. In large measure, its power stems from our awareness that outside the theater door similar agonies are unfolding and similar debates are raging. But the power is no less real for that.
"The Normal Heart" also has the added authenticity of autobiography. Essentially, Kramer -- in the character of author and activist Ned Weeks -- is telling his own story. It begins in the summer of 1981, with his attempts to awaken the gay community to the perils of AIDS and found a gay men's counseling center, and ends three years later with the AIDS-induced death of his lover, a fashion writer for The New York Times. Weeks is an indefatigable fighter, and in the play's nearly two dozen scenes, he takes up battle against The New York Times, the mayor, the media, the American Medical Association, hospitals, closet cases, even gay doctors -- all of whom, in the playwright's view, were conspicuously, and conspiratorially, silent on the subject for far too long.
But the lines are not quite so easily drawn. Weeks soon discovers he is fighting his biggest battle in the gay community itself, for which sexual promiscuity is an unnegotiable component of liberation. With his calls for monogamy, he is like a duenna at an orgy, and his alarmist rhetoric is perceived as more repression-in-the-making.
There's a further complication and it has to do with Weeks' confrontational disposition, "as cheery as Typhoid Mary." Not for nothing does his straight brother, a wealthy attorney, nickname him Lemon. With his blistering temper, he alienates friends and potential allies and very nearly drives off the one true love of his life. Just as the tide seems about to turn his way, Weeks is bumped from the board of his cherished crisis center for being an uncompromising bully and a fearmonger. If Kramer is harsh on others, he is no less severe on himself. "I'm a terrible leader and a useless lover," admits a battered Weeks.
Indeed, as Peter Zapp deftly plays him, he is a tarnished knight on a slightly soiled charger. Under the righteousness and sanctimony, however, is a sense of boyish helplessness that humanizes the character and lends him a certain gallantry as he sallies forth for yet another fall. Little by little, Weeks emerges as the sort of person you like despite himself.
That, in fact, seems to be the overall tactic of director Michael Engler, who qualifies the stridency of the play with his own heartfelt intuitions about the characters. Time and again, Engler and a splendid cast take us beyond diatribe and into the bewildered souls of men who are facing a terrible unknown. Instead of representing differing sides of an inflammatory argument, they become our surrogates in a naked confrontation with mortality.
As Weeks' lover, Peter Webster undergoes a shocking transformation -- his preppie good looks giving way to the scarred pallor of AIDS, his smooth manner losing energy, breath and assurance, until he is but a relic of himself. The performance is wrenching in its simplicity. Stephen Singer, as a Jewish health worker cracking under the fears and pressures of "living this epidemic every minute," experiences a similarly riveting mental disintegration.
But you can see the toll in the representatives of the straight world, as well. It underlies the stern, no-nonsense determination of Brenda Wehle, as a doctor who came down with polio three weeks before a vaccine was available, and finds to her horror that she is counting precious minutes all over again. And it makes for the buried pain of Mart Hulswit as Weeks' brother, reaching out as far as he can and realizing that it is probably not far enough.
Hugh Landwehr has designed the handsome movable set out of building blocks in the Post-Modern style, painted in magentas and purples. In another play, the red backdrop might register as an abstract painting. Here, it looks like a smear of blood in the microscope's eye. That, too, is apt. It is blood that carries the lethal AIDS virus.
And it is also blood, this compassionate production says, that makes us brothers and sisters under the skin.
movieag The Normal Heart. By Larry Kramer. Directed by Michael Engler. Sets, Hugh Landwehr; costumes, Robert Wojewodski; lighting, James F. Ingalls. With Stephen Singer, Steven Dawn, Peter Zapp, Daniel Szelag, Brenda Wehle, Daren Kelly, Peter Webster, Mart Hulswit, Mark Driscoll. At Center Stage in Baltimore through March 2.