In 1980s New York City, people — at first seemingly only gay men — are dying from the first documented U.S. cases of AIDS. In the opening scene of Larry Kramer's The Normal Heart a man with dark lesions visits a doctor, who tells him he is HIV-positive. He dies within months.
Writer Ned Weeks (Nick Shackleford) is urged by Dr. Emma Brookner (Lisa Picone) to spread the word about the virus. People don't always listen to doctors, Emma says, but they will listen to someone from the community. Ned has to battle his own neuroses and self-criticism before he starts to organize his friends Bruce (Jonathan Mares) and Mickey (Kyle Daigrepont) into a group of activists.
Bruce, who is closeted, is nonetheless voted president of Ned's organization, and cares for his lover the best he can before losing him to the disease. Mares plays Bruce with subtlety.
Brookner is a leading New York doctor and she sees the highest number of HIV-positive patients in the city. In one scene, she screams at a man who denies her research funding request, and Picone's strong voice amplified Brookner's frustration and urgency.
On the verge of a nervous breakdown, Ned meets fashion writer Felix (Sam Dudley) and the two become lovers. Ned carries a lot of the show's weight and Shackleford mostly nailed the performance. In a few places, his reactions — mostly yelling — felt forced. As partners, Shackleford and Dudley share some of the most grounded and powerful scenes, particularly as Felix becomes ill and Ned copes.
Partly autobiographical, Kramer's The Normal Heart (which was written in 1985), is an extremely emotional show. When the first cases of AIDS were diagnosed in the '80s, doctors had a difficult time identifying the virus. Ned says 40 of his friends have died from the disease. The show takes a vivid look at the period from 1981 to 1984 and doesn't back away from complicated issues surrounding the outbreak and official responses regarding health care and competing types of activism.
Scenes are set in Ned's apartment and a hospital, and simple transitions made the narrative flow well. At various times, names of people who contracted AIDS in the '80s were projected onto the set's brick facade.
The show is necessarily full of trauma and death, but at its heart, it demonstrates the community's resiliency and love. In Mares' production at the AllWays Lounge & Theatre, the actors go for it; they don't look away from the audience at the toughest moments. Though long removed from the outbreak in the '80s, it's still a very moving drama and it shows the power of theater. — TYLER GILLESPIE