By Adam Sandel
Larry Kramer’s landmark work “The Normal Heart” was the first play to tackle the AIDS crisis when it first opened in 1985. Last year’s Tony Award winning all-star revival, directed by George C. Wolfe, brought the early days of the AIDS crisis to life for a new generation.
Now that revival has come to San Francisco’s American Conservatory Theatre (through October 7th). The New York cast has been largely replaced by the cast of a recent Arena Stage production, but Wolfe’s direction, the stark, effective set design, and the fury of Kramer’s words remain intact.
The play is a stunning, painful, yet often witty indictment of the ignorance, fear and inaction that caused thousands of gay men to become infected and die from the mysterious disease before anything was known about it.
As a letter to audience members from Kramer himself notes, everything in the play happened and all of the characters were based on real people. In the Kramer role of Ned Weeks, Patrick Breen is a revelation: a prickly, passionate, yet endearing neurotic whose frustration and rage often alienate those he needs to reach the most.
A.C.T. veteran Matt McGrath is outstanding as his love interest, then lover Felix Turner, struggling to find connection and happiness during the darkest times of this terrible plague. The ensemble cast lends strong support, in particular Michael Berresse, Nick Mennell and Sean Dugan.
But ultimately the play itself is the star; it’s an important time-capsule work that captures a pivotal, painful moment in gay history. As the drama, tension, and humor of Act One give way to a series of rage-filled solo arias in Act Two, the play becomes a dramatic version of Kramer himself – losing force to uncontrolled fury.
Yet this strong production of “The Normal Heart” is one that should be seen by everyone – of all generations.
For more information and to purchase tickets, visit the ACT website here.
Photo: Mickey Marcus (Michael Berresse, left) accompanies his friend Craig Donner (Tom Berklund) to his doctor’s appointment in The Normal Heart. Photo by Scott Suchman.