"The Normal Heart" Beats with Explosive Force at TimeLine

Written By Sun-Times Wire Posted: 11/02/2013, 11:45pm

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When: Through Dec. 22
Where: TimeLine Theatre at Stage 773, 1225 W. Belmont
Tickets: $37-$50
Info: (773) 281-8463; www.timelinetheatre.com
Run time: 2 hours and 40 minutes with one intermission

TimeLine Theatre’s altogether stunning revival of Larry Kramer’s blistering landmark play, “The Normal Heart,” begins with the projection of a modest but hugely consequential headline on a New York Times story dated July 3, 1981: “Rare Cancer Seen in 41 Homosexuals.”
The “cancer” (or, more aptly, the virus associated with it) would eventually be dubbed AIDS, and those 41 recorded deaths would balloon into a global pandemic that to date has killed more than 25 million people.
The fact that the disease was transmitted primarily by means of unprotected sex, that it seemed rooted in the homosexual community (which had found one form of early liberation in promiscuous sex), that it remained a medical mystery in many ways, and that it terrified politicians, as well as the gay community itself, were among the many factors that conjoined to make this “plague” an untouchable subject for far too long.
Kramer was already a controversial writer and relentless public health advocate and organizer when his largely autobiographical play opened Off Broadway in 1985. Fearless, furious, abrasive and (according to some) half-mad and/or wildly narcissistic, he was a frontline witness to the AIDS epidemic as it first unfolded in New York City. And his brutally honest drama about those early years of denial and paralysis takes no prisoners as it bravely airs every viewpoint.
Director Nick Bowling has gathered a starry Chicago cast for his TimeLine production and the results are breathtaking. And in this fast, furious and impassioned rendering — with playful disco music of the period counterpointed by projections of the virus, and by the repeated “reveal” of the purple rashes that were as good as a death warrant — Kramer’s drama seems only to have gained in power.
At the center of “The Normal Heart” is Kramer’s alter ego, Ned Weeks (played by David Cromer, whose brilliance as an actor has recently been overshadowed by his success as a director). Gay and Jewish, self-loathing and self-righteous, and unusually censorious of the promiscuity he has seen (and to some extent engaged in himself), Weeks has no tolerance for a careful approach to what he sensed as catastrophic from the start. The question arises: Is his confrontational style counterproductive? In retrospect you realize he was almost messianic.
The ensemble surrounding Cromer is extraordinary. Patrick Andrews, slight and charming, is a marvel as Felix Turner, the closeted lifestyle reporter who becomes Weeks’ lover. Marc Grapey is perfection as Ben, Ned’s straight, wealthy older brother, who cannot come to terms with his brother’s homosexuality, yet adores him. Mary Beth Fisher, as the doctor confined to a wheelchair as a result of childhood polio, sets the room on fire as she lashes out at the medical profession and politicians too afraid of confronting reality. And Stephen Rader, as an activist who will not deny his sexual freedom, stops the show in a moment of psychological meltdown.
Alex Weisman is the young health worker who deftly tries to mediate between the extremes. Joel Gross plays the handsome banker who fears risking his position. Stephen Cone plays a closeted assistant to then Mayor Edward Koch, the man for whom Kramer saves his most fervent rage. And Nik Kourtis is fine in several smaller roles.

As always, Brian Sidney Bembridge’s set is ingenious — a towering wall of thousands of books, plus movable panels that define many different rooms and serve as the backdrop for Michael Stanfill’s projections.
“The Normal Heart” is so emotionally eviscerating for its actors that you wonder how they will survive the show’s run. Yet you sense they realize they have a rare opportunity to plunge into a play encircled by landmines. Audiences are sure to feel the same way.
Email: hweiss@suntimes.com
Twitter: @HedyWeissCritic

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