The shouting in the room has reached fever pitch, and everyone is tense, some suppressing tears and others sitting back in their chairs. Poor Richard’s Players’ production of Larry Kramer’s The Normal Heart has hooked the crowd. Some of us are a little jolted by the noise, but all of us seem to agree with protagonist Ned (played by Ernie Curcio) that the subject is worth yelling about.
The play details the tumultuous early days of the AIDS epidemic in 1980s New York, a past of medical and political confusion and prejudice. Part of why it’s important to stage this now has to do with who was in the audience that night: “Berlin patient” Timothy Ray Brown. Brown had HIV and in 2007 received a bone marrow transplant that left him HIV free. For many, HIV/AIDS is a thing of the past that seems less important than it was. But a killer disease that made its public foray only after years of relentless protest needs to be remembered as a deadly lesson in social justice.
It is this noble cause that complements Curcio’s irrepressible energy. His bombastic style is balanced by a diverse cast of characters. There’s the hardworking Dr. Brookner, astutely acted by Karalyn Clark, who’s sick of her patients dying and nobody caring; the closeted and tortured characters convincingly played by Skip Galla and Thomas Chrastka; and the older gay man (David Ament) who sees AIDS as a reversal of the liberation achieved since Stonewall.
This complexity is sometimes undercut by an emotional intensity that flirts with overwrought. What this talented group brings to Kramer’s crackling dialogue, however, is the passion that this chapter of history so richly deserves.