For a generation of Americans, two kinds of phone calls from friends sent your heart into your throat.
One began, “My orders came for Vietnam.”
The other began, “I have bruises that don’t go away.”
Both frequently ended in funerals, the first with honor and ceremony and the second with secretive tears.
And both crises followed the same pattern: the vague belief that the government knew what it was doing, the realization that it didn’t, public protests, media attention and finally a national debate over policy. One war ended 40 years ago; the other goes quietly on.
Larry Kramer’s play “The Normal Heart,” now getting a local debut at Theatre Charlotte 30 years after its New York opening, shows us the first stages of the response to the AIDS epidemic in the early 1980s.
It’s thought of as an angry piece. Yet in this production, directed by Dennis Delamar, its emotions cover a much wider range.
Kramer jabbed his pen at politicians, media, a straight community that averted its eyes, a gay community that closed its eyes, even his own confrontational self. Yet there’s love here, from an activist’s passion for his new partner to a doctor’s maternal feelings toward thousands of patients she can’t save. The cast gets all of that, turning Kramer’s often-acidic monologues into cries from the heart.
Chris Timmons bases his set on the 2011 Broadway revival, in a stripped-down design that looks less clinical than that version. On it he projects photos from the 1980s, atmospheric shots of New York and a growing roster of the dead. (Theatre Charlotte solicited real names via Facebook.)
In front of that backdrop, writer Ned Weeks (Tommy Foster) combats ignorance and silence wherever he finds them. Kramer based Ned closely on himself, and Foster gets the humor and bitterness in the role.
Ned can be annoyed that he’s attracted to a New York Times writer (Brandon James) while the Times won’t cover AIDS, or frustrated with the straight attorney brother (Frank Dominguez) who loves Ned but thinks there’s something unnatural about homosexuality. Ned’s lone unwavering ally is a doctor (Cynthia Farbman Harris) who insists attention must be paid to this new plague.
Yet he’s most at sea confronting his own community. Bruce (Paul Riley) stays in the closet to avoid offending his employer, though he has agreed to run a gay men’s health crisis group. Mickey (Chris Chandler) won’t stay celibate to prevent the spread of the virus. Only Southern-born Tommy (Jonathan Ewart) uses common sense to tie these guys together.
Seven of the 10 cast members make Theatre Charlotte debuts with this show, including Chandler, Ewart, Foster, James and Riley.
The passion that drove them to audition erupts in their lines, especially James’ speech about illness and Chandler’s about sex: Mickey considers the right to love publicly and indiscriminately a liberation gay people have always sought.
By the end, we realize Kramer understands these people well. He can’t quite forgive, but he doesn’t fully condemn anyone or anything – except indifference.
‘The Normal Heart’
Larry Kramer’s provocative play about the perilous life of gay men in the early 1980s gets its local debut from Theatre Charlotte.
WHEN: Through April 4 at 7:30 p.m. Thursday, 8 p.m. Friday, 8 p.m. Saturday and 2:30 p.m. Sunday. Also 7:30 p.m. April 1.
WHERE: Theatre Charlotte, 501 Queens Road.
RUNNING TIME: 150 minutes.
DETAILS: 704-372-1000; theatercharlotte.org.