Ensemble Theatre’s Powerful “The Normal Heart” Examines the Beginnings of AIDS

Ensemble Theatre’s Powerful “The Normal Heart” Examines the Beginnings of AIDS

Ensemble Theatre’s current production, “The Normal Heart” by Larry Kramer, examines the early 1980s beginnings of the plague that is the continuing global AIDS crisis. Ensemble’s powerful and sobering production, filled with amazingly talented actors, is harrowing and unflinching, and shows humanity at its most vulnerable.

In 1981, when the esteemed Dr. Emma Brookner (Derdriu Ring) begins to discover cases of AIDS among gay men in New York City, she can’t get cooperation from government officials or agencies, the media, the general public or the gay community to raise awareness of the disease or make efforts to curtail it before it spreads.

Jewish writer and actor Ned Weeks (Brian Zoldessy) stumbles into the story at Brookner’s office and begins to enlist the help of everyone who could effect change, including journalists, government officials and gay men. He even founds Gay Men’s Health Crisis and begins to speak out on the reasons why gay men should come out (of the closet, even) and fight to get the disease studied and cured. His brother, Ben (Jeffrey Grover), a lavish-living, high-powered lawyer, gives him legal and financial aid but refuses to consider his firebrand gay brother an equal, claiming Ned is coming off too radical: “People don’t like to be frightened,” Ben says.

Many gay men volunteer to run an information hotline and distribute pamphlets, lobby the mayor’s office and alert the media, but Ned is the most active member. Unfortunately, his tactics, including public defamation of those who might help his cause, turns some in the organization against him. The disease becomes very personal for Ned when dozens of his friends die. Even his lover, New York Times Style writer Felix Turner (Scott Esposito), becomes sick with AIDS.

Zoldessy capably plays Ned as thoughtful, passionate and articulate, though his character is seething with anger and zeal. His monologue explaining why “weakness terrifies me” is inspired, filled with reasons why people should fight injustices and not allow themselves to be overlooked.

Grover is perfectly cast as the stoic, conservative Ben. Watching Esposito as Felix turn from stylish, smart and flirty to feeble and pitiable is heartbreaking. Ring, nostrils flaring, is powerful and angry as the polio-stricken Brookner, though she gets a laugh when she suggests that we just “tell gay men to stop having sex.”

Director Sarah May has a very intense, meaty play with “The Normal Heart,” and has a wonderfully strong cast, put to great effect at Ensemble. Set Designer Ian Hinz has created an appropriately stark, minimalist set with abstract painted floor and center panel in the rear with bold angular paint strokes in grey, brown and white. Three video screens hang in the back and keep a portentous count of the steady uptick of AIDS cases from 41 cases in 1981 to 75 million men, women and children at last count.

“The Normal Heart” is heartbreaking, but thirty years later, the story of the men who were at the front lines of the AIDS crisis still needs to be told. The secrets of the 80s are out in the open now, but that silence that pervaded society, as they remained “practical,” or “conservative” or claimed it was “tricky” for them to come forward at that time to publicly support research for a cure for a marginalized societal group, was deadly.

“The Normal Heart” runs through October 21, Fridays and Saturdays at 8 p.m. and Sundays at 2 p.m. at 2843 Washington Boulevard, Cleveland Heights. For tickets, call (216) 321-2930 or visit www.ensemble-theatre.org. The play contains adult language and themes.

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