AIDS Drama 'The Normal Heart' an Extraordinary Revival at The Fountain Theatre

When Larry Kramer's The Normal Heart premiered in 1985, its urgent message about the AIDS crisis somewhat (and understandably) overshadowed its success as a brilliant piece of theatre. While that message of caution is still timely as people have mistakenly begun to believe that AIDS is a thing of the past, the primary joy of the Fountain Theatre's current revival of the show is the demonstration of what a strong, smart, character-driven play it is. The production is excellent on all levels, from Simon Levy's dynamic direction to the outstanding ensemble, with Tim Cummings delivering an electrifying, career-best lead performance.

In 1981 New York City, gay journalist Ned Weeks (Tim Cummings) and his friends are increasingly alarmed by the fact that their friends and lovers are getting sick and dying from an unknown disease. Dr. Emma Brookner (Lisa Pelikan), who is seeing a lot of these patients, urges Ned to talk to his community about the crisis, which is getting no coverage in mainstream news. Ned starts up an activist group to try and get the city health services to intervene, but a combination of government officials not wanting to be associated with a "gay plague" and Ned's righteous but impolitic temper keep things frustrating. Meanwhile, as the death count grows, Ned falls in love with fashion writer Felix Turner (Bill Brochtrup), and his fight becomes more personal as he ultimately has more to lose if the disease isn't diagnosed and a cure isn't found.

I've admired Cummings' work for some time now, particularly his dissimilar but equally amazing performances in Enda Walsh plays, but I think his portrayal of Ned may be a perfect meeting of actor and role. His Ned is so convincing and in the moment that you never feel he's acting but simply being and reacting, and as a result the play gains credible dramatic stakes as Ned and his friends are put through a nightmare. Scenes where Ned argues with officials and his compatriots are all compelling, but the raw emotion Cummings conveys in the confrontation with his older brother Ben (Matt Gottlieb) is simply astonishing. Finally, the tragedy conveyed in Ned's final speech, where he bitterly cries out, "I should have fought harder," when he patently couldn't have done anything more, is deeply moving and is the distilled broken "normal heart" of the play. This is easily one of the very best performances of the year.

Brochtrup excels as the calmer Felix, bringing charm and dignity to a scene of a disturbing doctor's visit where his character is clearly terrified but keeping it together, but he's equally good showing Felix in a moment of weakness where his composure slips completely. Pelikan is ferociously focused as the wheelchair-bound Emma, whom one would not describe as handicapped so much as formidable, and the outrage in her response to useless government officials is admirably scorching. Fred Koehler is terrific as fellow activist Mickey, and the scene in which he has a complete hysterical breakdown is emotional acting at a very high level. Stephen O'Mahoney is well cast as the more conservative Bruce, and his matter-of-fact delivery of the story of his lover's death makes it no less devastating. Gottlieb is very good as Ned's loving yet not approving brother Ben, and Verton R. Banks is funny and appealing as the compassionate Tommy.

Simon Levy has directed many notable shows at the Fountain, but this has to be one of his most memorable achievements. His work with the cast is superb, the pacing is fleet without rushing anything, and his use of projections and subtitles is expert. His staging is perhaps the most impressive, the entire ensemble moving on and offstage in a fluid choreography, his scene transitions tying the whole show together in a graceful way that bespeaks his quiet theatrical mastery. Two things stand out for me now about Kramer's play. The first is the way it works mainly as a detailed character study of Ned, yet doesn't neglect the other roles, giving almost all of them at least one great scene to play. The second is the clever way Kramer structures the show as the nuts and bolts of how an activist organization begins and tries to grow, and through that tells the story of the beginning of the public response to the AIDS crisis. I think the reputation of this work as mainly a piece of historical activism is completely unwarranted—The Normal Heart is a classic play, period. The revival at the Fountain Theatre is thrilling and extraordinary, a theatrical triumph for all involved, and a must-see for all theatre lovers.

"The Normal Heart" plays through November 3 at the Fountain Theatre. Tickets are available online.