If fury alone could fuel and fund a movement, then Ned Weeks could have extinguished the AIDS epidemic alone. Ned (played by Dylan C. Wack) is the protagonist of Larry Kramer’s autobiographical play “The Normal Heart,” a piercing tale set in 1980s New York, which shines a light on a group of friends, lovers and fighters at the forefront of this battle championing for government support and raising awareness around a condition that has since claimed the lives of more than 40 million people as of 2021. The New Repertory Theatre production runs through July 9.
Early cases of HIV/AIDS started cropping up in 1981, and Wack’s Ned, who leads a talented cast of performers in this Tony Award-winning story adapted for TV in 2014, starts to know more people than he’d like to who are infected. As people around him begin to get sick and die, Ned springs into action with the precision of a preying lion to do something about it. Ultimately, though, Ned—who is “terrified of weakness”—pays dearly for his frenetic approach to cultivating change.
The narrative, thoughtfully directed by Shira Helena Gitlin, is rounded out by Ned’s brother Ben (an excellent Luis Negrón), a lawyer who loves his brother but struggles to accept him fully; Mickey (Will McGarrahan), an older man who works at the city’s department of health; Bruce (Brian Demar Jones), a closeted vice president of Citibank and former member of the U.S. Army Special Forces; Felix (Chingwe Padraig Sullivan), a fashion and society-page writer for the New York Times; and actor Ken Yotsukura, a talented thespian who portrays multiple characters.
As the show progresses, this tight-knit group forms an advocacy organization that keeps its members abreast of what they’re up against. However, the founders and leaders disagree on how to best protect themselves and each other while simultaneously coping with tremendous fear and loss. For example, since Bruce isn’t out, he doesn’t want the group’s name spelled out on the organization’s envelopes. He is worried he’ll lose his job. Ned believes spelling out who they are is key to garnering support, no matter the cost.
Later, Ned finds love with Felix and tries to get them to write about the community’s plight. He doesn’t understand why the Times won’t write about it.
“Do you know that when Hitler's Final Solution to eliminate the Polish Jews was first mentioned in the Times it was on page 28? And on page six of the Washington Post. And the Times and the Post were owned by Jews. What causes silence like that?” Ned asks.
Hospital visits, conversations on couches, and audio news reports usher the audience through time on a set plastered with periodicals (designed by Melody Hsu). Speakers spout statistics and conclusions about the illness only affecting gay men or that the bathhouses frequented for intimacy are filthy. On the other hand, heroes like Dr. Brookner (Cailin Doran) help treat patients, including Ned’s friends, and try to secure money for research.
Many epidemics and pandemics have sent the world into a tailspin from the bubonic plague, to Legionnaires’ disease, to COVID, and more. However, the confusion wrought by the emergence of a new health scare is particularly frightening, a theme explored in “The Normal Heart.” The contradictory information shared by independent news sources and governments leaves Ned and his friends bewildered, a feeling that’s all too familiar.
Dr. Brookner surmises that sex spreads the sickness and asks Ned to tell everyone he knows to cool it between the sheets. But, without proof, no one listens, and Ned’s stance and tactics alienate him from everyone despite his earlier wins in getting funding and support from the city.
There are explosive arguments that prick the heart, haunting details such as bold, beet-colored Kaposi sarcomas peeking out from shirts, and the stark differences between Ned and Bruce’s approaches that make them near enemies in this searing tale. While Ned rages and screams, Bruce employs diplomacy. Ned balks at Bruce’s way of doing things and brings up Bruce’s army past. He asks if Bruce has ever killed anyone and if he liked it. Ned pushes and pushes, as if eager to get Bruce to explode and use anger as he does to help their cause. Each one drives the other up the wall, but Kramer’s play highlights how when trying to change the world for the better, there are many ways to win a war, and a letter-writer, picketer, politician, or doctor can all be worthy soldiers in combat.
New Repertory Theatre’s production of “The Normal Heart” runs through July 9 at the Black Box Theater at the Mosesian Center for the Arts.