In these disturbing times in which so many of us are apprehensive about the now and the soon to come, the darknesses of our collective history may be obscured, especially those that did not spring purely from war, terrorism or politics. This makes the timing right for ion theatre’s mounting of Larry Kramer’s 1985 play The Normal Heart. The semiautobiographical work, which chronicles the horrifying emergence of the AIDS virus, is both a reminder of a devastating period in America and of how far (and how little) –- we’ve come on so many levels since the early ‘80s.
Ion Executive Artistic Director Claudio Raygoza delivers a fearless performance as Ned Weeks, the gay activist whose passion and anger over what’s happening to his fellow man, including his first true love, undermines his fight for help. As with the best of ion’s productions, The Normal Heart benefits from the Hillcrest theater’s intimate black-box environs. Being part of the audience and feeling the burst of emotions -- the pain, the frustration, the fury -- from Raygoza’s Weeks is inescapable.
The first act of The Normal Heart, co-directed by Raygoza and ion Artistic Director Glenn Paris, is measured compared to the second act, where playwright Kramer’s narrative structure is more monologic. Not only Raygoza, but ion Associate Artistic Director Kim Strassburger (as a fiercely committed doctor), Michael Lundy (as an advocate breaking down from the strain) and Joel Miller (as the conflicted president of the Gay Men’s Health Crisis) lay bare all their raw emotions.
In spite of its ensemble’s heightened performances and riveting discourse, The Normal Heart is a disquieting theater experience, as it should be. Its story is still one without a finish, and that reality must not be lost amid the exigency of our current political anxieties. Whether intentional or not, ion’s choice to stage this still-important play now, during the compulsory merriment of the holiday season, is bold. If you’ve only seen the fine 2014 HBO film of The Normal Heart, catching ion’s production will deepen your understanding, and perhaps your outrage and compassion as well.
“That was intense!” one theatergoer exhaled moments after the lights went up at the conclusion of the San Diego Rep’s production of Ayad Akhtar’s Disgraced. Point well taken. Akhtar’s 2013 Pulitzer Prize-winning one-act is inflated with tension to the point of bursting. Its combative characters, flexing ego and righteousness, go from vitriol to volatility in the course of one fateful dinner party. While the audible gasping from certain audience members on opening night was annoying, it’s fair to say that Disgraced is a play that you can’t help but get involved in.
The story’s focal character is Amir (Ronobir Lahiri), a Pakistan-born New York attorney with all the trappings of corporate success (Upper East Side dream flat, gorgeous artist wife, $600 dress shirts). But he’s a man deeply conflicted about his Muslim identity. More than once he’s justifiably called out for being “self-loathing.” His wife Emily (Allison Spratt Pearce) has gone earnestly overboard embracing Islam because it is at the core of her newly discovered artistic ethos. This has intrigued (on more than one level, it turns out) the self-loving art curator Isaac (Richard Baird), a Jew, who happens to be married to an African-American associate (Monique Gaffney) at Amir’s law firm.
About a third of the way through the 90-minute play directed by Michael Arabian, the “festivities” at Amir and Emily’s apartment begin. That’s when Disgraced, already simmering in polemics, heats up. Charges of ignorance, hypocrisy, bigotry and hatred explode. Epithets and even saliva fly. Loaded confidences more personal than political are exposed.
What might have been chaotic is, in Akhtar’s intelligent and human script, bitingly thoughtful drama. Each character has his or her flaws. A self-described “cultural Muslim” himself, Akhtar does not take sides or preach an agenda. The one miscalculation may be the subplot featuring M. Keala Milles, Jr. as Amir’s eventually radicalized nephew. Intended to exacerbate Amir’s inner conflict, it feels wedged in.
Disgraced is one of the most often produced plays in the U.S. Possessed as it is of currency, insight and shock value, that’s understandable.
David L. Coddon is a Southern California theater critic.