The terrifying uncertainty early in the AIDS pandemic hits the audience with ferocious energy in the revival of Larry Kramer’s “The Normal Heart” that opened American Conservatory Theater’s season Wednesday. Then the desperate love and humanity of the gay activists suffuse and elevate the action in director George C. Wolfe’s remounting of his 2011 Tony-winning Broadway production.
It’s a notable achievement with what has always been a problematic play. Kramer’s landmark drama made an indelible impression off-Broadway in 1985 (and at Berkeley Rep the following year), driven more by the writer’s passionate, urgent anger than dramatic craft. What makes Wolfe’s accomplishment all the more remarkable is the enormous impact it achieves after an unpromising beginning.
This is Wolfe’s second take on the production. He remounted “The Normal Heart” earlier this year at co-producer Arena Stage, with “restaging director” Leah C. Gardiner and the Broadway design team but without original stars Joe Mantello and Ellen Barkin. It may also play better as it settles into its ACT run. Wednesday, the actors worked at such a rapid clip that the show ran almost 15 minutes shorter than its stated 2 1/2 hours.
The quick pacing may help, though, as the more heavily didactic first act flies by. What registers most strongly is the terrifying unknown of the new plague hitting Manhattan’s gay men amid a confusing welter of facts, outraged verbiage, and character and relationship introductions delivered at machine-gun speed.
Much of that comes from Patrick Breen, of the Broadway cast, now in Mantello’s role as Ned Weeks. Ned is Kramer’s alter ego in a largely autobiographical account of his frustrating efforts to mobilize the gay community to fight malignant official neglect. Breen’s scenes with Jordan Baker (originally Barkin’s understudy) as the even angrier doctor overwhelmed with AIDS patients are fact- and invective-packed enough to make one’s head spin.
It doesn’t help that Baker speaks in staccato angry eruptions that mirror Breen’s, making it hard at first to absorb much of the information they’re spouting. But that, in turn, downplays some of Kramer’s didacticism. What comes through is the bewildering terror of those years when underfunded doctors and researchers were struggling to understand the course of the disease, its incubation period and its cause.
Then the genius of Wolfe’s staging takes hold. The overheated exchanges between fiery and temporizing gay activists – expertly embodied by Michael Berresse, Nick Mennell, Sean Dugan, Tom Berklund and Patrick Alparone – give way to quieter, deeper interactions.
As lights magically transform the set’s claustrophobic monumental walls, Breen lets us see softer, more magnetic aspects of the ever-angry Ned. We get glimpses in his dealings with his straight brother, Ben (Bruce Altman). Those aspects also come through with comic awkwardness and increasingly affecting resonance in his ill-fated romance with Matt McGrath‘s smart, sweetly appealing Felix.
As much as the politics, it’s Wolfe’s treatment of the love story that makes “Heart” as timely as ever. Who knew that Kramer’s potent call to action against the new plague could become, almost 30 years later, an eloquent case for marital equality?
PHOTO: Ned (Patrick Breen, left) and Felix (Matt McGrath) are lovers in “The Normal Heart.” Photo: Kevin Berne, ACT / SF