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With feeling

Mad Horse's latest show has exceptional heart
By MEGAN GRUMBLING  |  June 10, 2010

TIMELESS RELEVANCE Highlighting the struggles within and without.

From the darkness, a hand strikes chalk against a spot-lit blackboard: July 1981, it writes, and then, 16. Those are the date and the death count with which we begin The Normal Heart, Larry Kramer's outraged 1985 drama about the terrifying early days of the AIDS epidemic in New York City's gay community. Later, a hand will cross out July and write September; will cross out 16 and write 41. Then October and 107, then March and 227. The spiraling dates and numbers pace the harrowing course of Kramer's play, directed by Christine Louise Marshall for Mad Horse.

THE NORMAL HEART | Written by Larry Kramer | Directed by Christine Louise Marshall | Produced by Mad Horse Theatre Company, at the Studio Theater at Portland Stage Company | through June 20 | 207.730.2389
Writer and career belligerent Ned Weeks (Peter Brown) and his friends know many of those numbers personally. And so in terror, grief, and anger at the straight community's indifference, Ned spearheads a grassroots movement against the spread of the disease, carried out in articles, mailings, marches, and the basement of City Hall. Working with him are a range of men — including Stonewall-era activist Mickey (James Herrera); Tommy (Jordan William), a young blond Southerner who works for city health; and closeted banker Bruce (Burke Brimmer) — along with Dr. Emma Brookner (Janice Gardner), the sympathetic physician who more than anyone else in medicine has seen the ravages of the outbreak. Working against them are a government unwilling to acknowledge the scope of the disease or fund its research, a gay community divided by ideology (of which Ned and his oft-feuding fellow activists are a microcosm), a virus that works far faster than they do, and the early '80s horrific stigmatization of gays and AIDS.

Twenty-five years after its premiere, during which we've seen monumental shifts in both culture and medicine, Kramer's work holds up remarkably. It still resonates in part because of its dramatic genres: This is a consciousness-raising play, to be sure, but it's also a political drama, and it gives a gripping glimpse into the inner intrigue and tensions of the movement. Ned has to contend not just with in-denial Ed Koch's policies, but also with Bruce's reluctance to have the word "gay" spelled out too publicly, and with Mickey's adamance that to advise gay men against promiscuity is anti-liberation. The men's scenes at headquarters are taut and volatile, driven by sharp, colorful acting by Herrera and William and by the haunted reserve of Brimmer's Bruce. And this is also a play about love, as Ned finds, falls for, and promptly begins to lose Times writer Felix (James Hoban, affectingly).

Perhaps the most theatrically difficult element of this show is Ned's sustained and ever-rising anger. The danger is that his rage will plateau and so lose its impact, and at times Brown does seem to coast a little too comfortably on Ned's harsh bark and sarcasm. But he also brings Ned's volume and tone down into fine intimate banter with Felix, and on several occasions, his emotion flares anew with startling purity: When his brother Ben (David Jacobs) admits that he can't see him as his equal; when he is ousted from his own organization for being too outspoken.

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  Topics: Theater , Health and Fitness, Sexual and Reproductive Health, Contagious and Infectious Diseases,  More more >
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