The Normal Heart, at UCSC, Nov 1, 2013


By Philip Pearce

From its parking lot, U.C. Santa Cruz’s Theater Arts complex was for me a puzzling maze of stairs, archways and concrete architecture with no visible evidence of a box office. The undergraduate who kindly led me through the maze to the opening night of Larry Kramer’s The Normal Heart turned out to be the play’s personable young director, Adam Odsess-Rubin. By the end of the evening, I decided he and an all student cast and crew had done a creditable job with a challenging piece of theater still eloquent and disturbing 28 years after its Broadway premiere.  

Normal HeartKramer’s play is, of course, an angry and ground-breaking attack on the attitude of national, state and big city officials of the 1980s toward the burgeoning AIDS epidemic. Angry because that response was one of dangerous apathy and irresponsible denial by almost everyone except actual victims of the disease. Ground-breaking because Kramer, eschewing the glib camp of works like The Boys in the Band, lashes out in a drama about a group of believable, eloquent and honorable homosexual men.

The central figure is a relentless gay leader and political organizer named Ned Weeks. Sean Draper invests the role with the authentic fire and rage of a committed pioneer activist but manages also to mine some of the nuance and humor without which Weeks could easily become a tiresomely ranting Johnny-one-note. His circle of cohorts covers a wide range of attitudes and aspirations. At one extreme there’s Brandon Barnes’ stolid masculinity as Bruce, a gay rights leader so paradoxically unwilling to come out publicly that the enraged Ned at one point accuses him of being a closet straight. The play follows others, some gay, some straight, as they are drawn into battle, some eager others unwilling, with threats to their jobs in media, the law and even the office of New York Mayor Ed Koch. They are ably portrayed by a cast that includes Joshua Orlando, Marc Williams, Alex Lasser-Gold, Judyan Gonzalez, Tanner Oertel, Marc Williams and Devon Yaffe. Especially notable, I thought, was Tommy Boatwright, played with vigor and intelligence by Quest Zuidler, as a man too squeaky voiced and limp wristed to get many dates but an increasingly strong mainstay of sanity, peace making and compassion in the stormy world of this gay activist fellowship.

Neiry Rojo is hampered only by occasional problems with audibility. As the only female in a cast of ten and the only character who, in her committed medical outreach to HIV positive males, she matches Ned’s relentless fury at the pig-headed political and medical establishment of the time.

In general, the cast are best where Kramer’s script does best—in the emotional ups and downs and poignant personal conflicts of this group of emotionally differing individuals. They are less successful where, in my view, Kramer’s script falters, in a Second Act with too many two-way ideological face-offs. These confrontations are well crafted and persuasive, but they come in such a close, lock-step succession that you lose touch with the issue being argued and tune out, a victim of eloquence overload.

The production continues on Friday and Saturday at 7 and Sunday at 3 through November 10.

Photo by Chris Cuadrado; Sean Draper and Brandon Barnes