Theatre Review: The Normal Heart
It is always an exciting discovery to learn that a local theatre group is presenting a quality play, especially when a major production company such as Mirvish supports it. Studio 180 is that group — along with Buddies in Bad Times Theatre — and the play is The Normal Heart, by New York playwright Larry Kramer. I am embarrassed to say that I never saw this play when it was first presented in Toronto last year. (No, theatre critics are not infallible.)
The play is about the first months and years of the AIDS epidemic in the early ’80s, and the attempts by the gay community of New York City to wake up America’s (and the world’s) newspapers, politicians and medical researchers to this unknown and unnamed new “plague.”
This play is remarkably intelligent, and it says a surprising amount about the power of an individual or a small group in saving thousands, even millions of lives.
Now, The Normal Heart is a polemic. But so was the magnificent Henrik Ibsen’s now-treasured An Enemy of the People, a play about a single man’s struggle to take on society. Kramer, too, is a wise craftsman, and knows how to create complex characters, though not all of them are particularly attractive. (The main character of this play is based on Kramer’s own life as one of the first people who took on government and health officials, and he is not a very pleasant person.)
When the play begins, the 28th case of this strange new disease has just been discovered, and 16 are already dead. By the end, there are 30 to 40 cases a week coming to light, and the number of the infected is doubling every six months.
Early in the play, a female doctor declares, “Health is a political issue,” and who can deny that truth today, three decades later? And one of the central ironies of this awful period of time is the fact that the gay community had been struggling for years to finally achieve the right to not be closeted and to fully enjoy its sexuality.
This is a beautiful production, gorgeously staged, and the acting is at the level of Stratford or Shaw. The play closes on Nov. 18 in this second coming to Toronto, and I urge you to see it. If you don’t cry at the end, I don’t see how you held your tears in. Bravo to all involved, from Studio 180 to Buddies to Mirvish Productions. Call the latter and I sense that you will thank me.
Allan Gould is Post City Magazines’ theatre critic. He has a Ph.D. in English and Theatre from York University and has written over 40 books. His writing has appeared in Toronto Life, Chatelaine, enRoute, Canadian Business, Good Times and the Financial Post. He is married, with two children. Aside from his family, his major passions are theatre and film, because they enrich life with pleasure and meaning.