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Arts and Entertainment

The Normal Heart's Irregular, But Vital, Beat

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Larry Kramer's 1985 groundbreaking AIDS-related drama The Normal Heart is enjoying a 20th Anniversary run in Silverlake, by LA's oldest repertory theatre, Company of Angels. The play relays the personal, social, medical, and familial struggles of Ned Weeks (Steven Tynan) in the earliest days of the HIV/AIDS epidemic's outbreak in New York City's gay population. Weeks is based on playwright and activist Kramer's own experience, and his formation of the Gay Men's Health Crisis. The play focuses on Weeks and his closest friends and confidantes, including his wealthy and occasionally distant brother Ben (Don Stewart), and his lover, Felix Turner (Paul Eric Jerome). His fellow activists and advocates, who represent a cross-section of homosexual "types," and include the conservative, closeted Bruce Niles (Michael Danyleiko), playboy yuppie Mickey Marcus (Andrew Schark), and the southern belle, Tommy Boatwright (Joseph Gilbert). The team is tended to and roused to action by a straight-shooting, forward-thinking medical advocate, Dr. Emma Brookner (Lauren Gasparo).

The set is sparse, and because of the size and the layout of the theatre, the action is at times extremely close, which does not lend to discomfort, but rather a seamlessness state between the story and the audience. Surely there are many people who have sat through the show who feel a profound attachment to the people and the pain represented on stage. The fact that there has been tremendous progress in the arena of HIV/AIDS research, tolerance, treatment, and awareness means that a production as seemingly "dated" as The Normal Heart might on the one hand seem irrelevant, or on the other hand give us the wrong idea that everything is okay now because we've come so far; we hope it's neither, and that a show such as this should serve as a tribute to the pioneers and risk-takers of the movement, and as a signal that we still have so far to go. In fact, the play's frequent references to gay marriage strikes a resonant cord in contemporary times. There's always a "but" though... more after the jump.

These heavy issues are a lot for one small production to shoulder, and the strain is at times evident in the performance, which is not without spottiness. Tynan, who alternates in the role of Ned Weeks with Andrew Thompson, seemed to not always fully inhabit the role, as he flubbed numerous lines and had uneven delivery. Most of the cast seemed to really come into their own, and the material, in the show's second half, when both Danyleiko and Stewart shine in some extremely difficult and emotional speeches. The two standouts in this generally competent ensemble are Gilbert and Jerome; Gilbert's bold characterization, wisecracks, and wholehearted committment to the part is a delight to watch, and Jerome's performance was consistently emotive, complex, and tight. Typically, when a show has this kind of unevenness, as The Normal Heart's irregular beat reveals, it is a problem that rests in the hands of the director. Stacy Ann Raposa seems content to guide her talented crew towards isolated moments of amped up extremism, padded with long stretches of thrown, flatly-delivered lines. Regardless, the power of the play ensures that there not be a dry eye in the house, and reminds us of the vitality of the message being delivered.

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The Normal Heart
Thursdays, Fridays, Saturdays at 8:00 p.m. and Sundays at 2:00 p.m.
Tickets are $25, ($5 from every ticket goes to Project Angel Food)
Company of Angels 2106 Hyperion Avenue, Silverlake (323) 883-1717

(The part of Ben Weeks was played by Don Stewart, not David Lipson as originally posted. --lwr)