Saturday, March 11, 2017

The Normal Heart by Larry Kramer

L-R Parker Mills and Peter Schiavelli

By Joe Straw

Global situation and trends: Since the beginning of the epidemic, more than 70 million people have been infected with the HIV virus and about 35 million people have died of HIV. Globally, 36.7 million [34.0–39.8 million] people were living with HIV at the end of 2015. An estimated 0.8% [0.7-0.9%] of adults aged 15–49 years worldwide are living with HIV, although the burden of the epidemic continues to vary considerably between countries and regions. Sub-Saharan Africa remains most severely affected, with nearly 1 in every 25 adults (4.4%) living with HIV and accounting for nearly 70% of the people living with HIV worldwide. – World Health Organization

I saw The Normal Heart at the Las Palmas Theatre in 1985 with Richard Dreyfuss as Ned Weeks and Kathy Bates as Dr. Emma Brookner, although, sad to say, I remember very little of her in that performance. But I do remember, at the end of the first half, the audience let out a huge audible gasp when we discovered something about a character, the way it was presented, and the way the audience accepted that information.  - Narrator

Every living breathing human being has a heart and that heart beats from 60 to 100 beats per minute. That is considered normal.  There is a lot of variation in heartbeats – from 60 to 100 beats – and, as in all lives, extenuating circumstances can affect that normal.

Our reactionary government abandoned the populace when AIDS emerged and, for an unconscionable period of time, ignored the “gay plague”.

Reading about it in the early eighties, it didn’t take a genius (me) to understand that if it could be transmitted from gay contact it could also be transmitted through human sexual contact. It was a very costly mistake that eventually required boots on the ground – a grassroots organization to get the word out and to have the government take action. This essentially is what The Normal Heart is about.

The Normal Heart by Larry Kramer and directed by Marilyn McIntyre is now playing at The Chromolume Theatre February 24 through March 19, 2017. Produced by Sarah Burhardt and Parker Mils.

Larry’s Kramer’s The Normal Heart is a terrific show with exceptional performance by a superb cast in the tiny black box theatre of The Chromolume.  The acting is well above par in this intimate setting and overall an enjoyable night of theatre.  I do have some thoughts that I will share later.

Kramer, in his play, sets a tone for political activism, which must be unapologetic and loud to make a difference. There was a sense of urgency back in the 1980’s of finding the answers and then finding a cure.  This required a lot of help from politicians and from grass roots organizations to make it work. To date there is not cure and the disease is manageable if you can afford the drugs.

On this particular night, the partial walls on rollers lifted almost to the ceiling, hiding the unseen, the black walls darkened the proscenium.  And on the facade, were the headlines of the day.  July 1981 is the month and the year in which we are placed.   

The stagnant dividers opened to reveal a doctor’s waiting room, normal patients anticipating the worse, Craig (Cameron Cowperthwaite) explains what he is feeling, his ragged body tells the story, the heavy heart weigh down by swollen glands already discovered.   

“I’m tired all the time.  I wake up in swimming pools of sweat.” – Craig  

Craig wails for his companion, Bruce Niles (Alan Lennick), a former Green Beret, who did not accompany him to this doctor’s appointment. He is waiting for Dr. Emma Brookner (Carole Weyers), who is examining patients in the next room.  

(Brookner is based on Dr. Linda Laubenstein an early HIV/AIDS researcher. She, along with Dr. Alvin Friedman-Kien, published the first article linking AIDS with Kaposi’s sarcoma.)

That patient, now leaving Dr. Brookner’s office has purple lesions covering his face. David (Eric Bunton) walks over to retrieve his jacket and silently stares at the three men waiting to go in.  He notices that they are staring at his lesions.  

Craig hugs Mickey Marcus (Ray Barnhart), silently ignores the manifestation in front of him, and hesitantly walks away and to the examining room.

“They keep getting bigger and bigger and they don’t go away. (Changing the subject and directing his focus to Ned) I sold you a ceramic pig once at Maison France on Bleecker Street.  My name is David.” - David

I don’t remember them shaking hands, or that an attempt was even made.

Nebbish Ned Weeks (Parker Mills) who was melting inconspicuously into the furniture is suddenly called out, pulled out from the chair, from oblivion to prominence, filled with questions without answers about the 28 gay men infected, 16 who have already died.  

And as quietly as he arrived, David leaves with little fanfare.

“Mickey, what the f*uck is going on?” – Ned

“I don’t know. Are you here to write about this?” - Mickey

Two writers in the room without focus, Ned who is a successful writer of sorts and Mickey who writes a health column for the health department, each desultory, no one making the first move. Mickey says the city doesn’t have an interest in stories about gay health.

Craig comes out of the Dr. Emma Brookner’s office and says he going to die.  

Ned, with a slight call to act, rushes into the doctor’s office to ask questions.  He takes little notice that Dr. Brookner is confined to a wheelchair. She immediately tells him to take off his clothes.

“You’re gay, aren’t you? Take your clothes off.” – Dr. Brookner


Parker Mills and Carole Weyers

Through the examination Brookner has an idea she wants to share with Ned.  Brookner needs a mouthpiece, someone who will spread the word, and she understands that Ned has a big mouth, is a writer, and will somehow get the word out. She explores the possibility of asking Ned to tell men that they should stop having sex, not only the men in New York City but also all across the country.  

This call to duty is an insurmountable task for Ned Weeks, and he is not really sure that he is up for the challenge.  He approaches a writer at the Times, handsome Felix Turner (Peter Schiavelli).  Ned also tries to get his brother Ben Weeks (Dan Via), a lawyer to donate money and to sit on the board. Ben is not up for the idea, and says he will take it to his committee.

L - R Alan Lennick, Cameron Cowperthwaite (gurney), Ray Barnhart, Carole Weyers, Parker Mills

Marilyn McIntyre, the director, does a terrific job with this very small-scale production. Actors, also scene changers, were flying in and out during the sixteen scene changes, trying not to bump into each other to lay out set and prop pieces.  I’m wondering if there is an economical and efficient way of handling those duties, a way of moving actors in character so that it moves with the progression of the play.  The walls must also be moved with characters in mind; even the tables can be placed with characters in various stages of the illness.

The opening, on this night, requires attention with Ned finally speaking when he is addressed about the pigs. (About a page and a half in.) Ned needs a better introduction and how that manifests itself is the job for the director.  Ned is a frightened person, assaulted with realities, and trying to find a way to help.  It is here, in the opening moments, when he steps from the shadows and into the limelight.  One thinks of the play as a political drama, a reactionary intrusion into a life bombarded by the unthinkable, so many people dying in a short time span, and a government unwilling to take action.  This is where Ned comes in, he sees the light of humanity darkened. (Some stage lighting helping out on the dying would help.  A little symbolism goes a long way here.) From first hand account Ned takes aggressive action.  Maybe he doesn’t think it’s much but he really must be gung-ho to get this going, not stopping, even through his survival depends on the help from politicians and his friends, both who get in his way.  

Also, time is an element that must be accentuated for full dramatic play.

One other thing, this is a play where even the smallest of relationships must work to get the full effect having to do with the advancement of the events, David saying that he is dying, Craig running from the doctor’s office, Felix ignoring Ned, and Ben unwilling to help until someone reaches their eternal perdition.  

On this night, I detected a slow start, characters not really connecting, but once the butterflies went away, the production soars, taking us to unconquerable heights.  The acting is top notched, a testament to Howard Fine Acting Studio and the number of actors in this production who have gone there.

But again, I have some thoughts.

Parker Mills does fine work as Ned Weeks.  Weeks need a better introduction, stepping out of the shadows into the limelight. The conflict is that he never gets the publicity for reasons that are out of his control.  He is relegated to being a co-worker of an organization he co-founds when another is chosen to be president.  His life as a writer, and its inexhaustible privations, moves him in a way to help humanity. But, Weeks is seen as brash and opinionated and, in his indecorous ferocity, he is a man of action that very few people like.  He must overcome those obstacles to get what he wants. Mills does a fine job of giving the character many levels, acting with a sense of urgency because other characters are dying. Mills is impeccable in his craft; his movements are specific, and his objective strong.  There is more to add in the way he sees the overall picture, reacts, and then takes action.  

Dan Via is Ben Weeks and really does a fantastic job.  Weeks is a powerful lawyer that wants nothing to do with his brother’s organization and will not even accept that his brother is gay. Organized, a planner, and one who will not step into a situation that would jeopardize his career.  Via excels in this role, his manner is competent, his motives are entirely complete, and he knows his way around the stage.

Alan Lennick, as Bruce Niles, can add more to the Green Beret character that he plays.  Once a military man, especially one that carries Special Forces Tab, well, that never leaves you.  And how that manifests itself on stage is something that should be brought forward. Still it is a terrific performance, his voice is strong, articulate, the broad shoulders, and the height that carries the day. He regards himself as a leader but will not step out of the shadows to out himself, and that is an interesting conflict for someone who wants to represent a gay organization. Niles relationship to Weeks could be strengthened in the way he rebuffs him and then tries to take over the organization.

Peter Schiavelli is very angular as Felix Turner, in the way that Dudley Do-Right was drawn angular. Schiavelli has a very strong handsome presence on stage and manages to make the most of the character. What is interesting about this character is that he is hiding something from his partner until the end of the first half.  It is so subtle on stage as to not be noticeable and maybe should be a part of the character’s internal conflict about becoming involved.

Carole Weyer is Dr. Emma Brookner and played this character with an accent, sounding German at times.  One is not sure what that was about as the character is based on someone born and went to school in the United States. It was a choice that was not entirely successful.  That said, her craft, and her work presented outstanding choices, the manner in the wheelchair and the way she conducted her examination of the patients were outstanding.

Jeffrey Masters plays Tommy Boatwright, a southern belle, as it were.  The southern accent does not take him to unimaginable heights and needs work.  That said, he has a very likeable personality and does well for his limited time on stage.  But, more specifically, he needs to identify the conflict, and work for a stronger objective.

Ray Barnhart is Mickey Marcus, a man who will help but will not go beyond his limited means.  He doesn’t want to be president of the group and is satisfied with stuffing envelopes.  He works for the Health Department but is not about to risk his job writing about the gay plague.  Barnhart requires a stronger choice for his objective and the conflict that keeps him from reaching his objective. Still, there is something very likeable about this character and this actor.

Eric Bunton plays three different roles, David, Hiram, and the doctor.  Bunton has a strong voice and does something very interesting with David, the man with the lesions, he quietly enters from the doctors and quietly exits as a man who presents the disease and then quietly exits the world, as he knows it.

Cameron Cowperthwaite (that’s a name) does well as the sick friend in the first scene, who is a hypochondriac, but turns out that his fears are not mental.  One would love to see his face as he is writhing on the gurney. It sets the mood and the action that needs to be taken. 

Nicely produced by Sarah Burkhardt and Parker Mills. 

Run! Run! And take an activist.  There is more to learn and much more for which to take action.

Members of the crew who contributed mightily to the production are as follows:

David Mauer – Set Design
Brandon Baruch – Lighting Design
Chris Moscatiello – Sound Design
Liz Schroeder – Costume Design
Michael Skolnick – Props
Brandon Hearnsberger – Video Editing
Jake Moses – Original Music
Edward Vyeda – Original Artwork
Scott Marshall – Lighting Assistant
Amy Koch – Stage Manager
Ken Werther Publicity – Press Representative
Sarah Burkhardt – Associate Director

Telephone: 800-838-3006

The Chromolume Theatre at The Attic
5429 W. Washington Boulevard
(Between the 10 Freeway and Hauser Blvd.)
Los Angeles, CA  90016

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