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.
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David L. Coddon is a Southern California theater critic.