The first thing I need to tell you about the Studio 180/Buddies in Bad Times co-production of The Normal Heart is that you must go and see it. Must. Utterly non-optional for anyone who ever likes theatre a little bit, which I presume you must since you are reading a theatre blog. Go ahead and click over to get your tickets, I’ll wait.
Fair enough, The Normal Heart – an early-AIDS-pandemic drama set in 1980s New York City – is an extraordinary play on all axes. Like much that’s great in art, it is perfectly and specifically of its moment in that way that allows a piece to be universal. And yet we don’t need it to be universal. We’re still living in that perfect storm of fear, outrage, and ignorance that allowed the epidemic to burgeon, unchecked.
This script, like any other that’s truly great – great as an exponential value well beyond the good or the very good or any other increment – is also very demanding. It shows any flaws of the production clearly. This production has so few they’re almost not worth detailing – okay, there’s one thing I really didn’t care for, but otherwise it was just marvelous: fresh, tender, nuanced, vibrant with fear and longing.
The production is arranged in the round, around a dance floor that blinks like a discotheque during the interstitial scene-change-furniture-moving. I am not in general a fan of productions in which I spend a lot of time looking at the backs of actors. However, director Joel Greenberg has clearly impressed upon the cast how crucial the round-style makes it to be invested in what the other characters are saying.
I laughed myself sick watching Felix’s face as Ned rambled and ranted on their first date, and cried watching Tommy’s face fall as Mickey lost the last of his resolve near the end. It didn’t matter at all that I couldn’t see the principal speakers’ face.
It’s tempting to start singling out actors and their performances, but really, they all did very well. I did not adore Jonathan Seinen as Tommy Boatwright at the beginning, but his slight awkwardness really grew on me as the show progressed. Jonathan Wilson captured Ned Weeks’ peculiar and demanding hysteria keenly without making him a caricature, and even with so much to do in the show he didn’t let up for a minute.
My aforementioned one complaint is a casting complaint: Sarah Orenstein did a dandy job as Dr. Emma Brookner, but was there really not a single actor in the GTA who actually uses a wheelchair, even sometimes, who could have been cast? Admittedly, this is a pet peeve of mine, but I cannot imagine why a director who wouldn’t dream of using blackface will still cast walking actors in roles that use mobility aids.
A few other kudos must be awarded; sound designer Verne Good’s choice to make a virtue of the inevitable scene changes by choosing music that went from proper do-ya-wanna-funk disco to the abject misery of 80s synth, mirroring the decline in optimism among the cast. And when Jonathan Wilson found himself, due to technical failure, trapped onstage in his underwear without his scene partner, he vamped effortlessly and bantered with the audience (none of whom pointed out that boxer briefs didn’t exist in 1981, cute as they were on him).
Even still, this production of The Normal Heart is a marvel, and I was quiet and delighted in reflection all evening after seeing it.
THE NORMAL HEART is performed until November 6, 2011 at Buddies in Bad Times Theatre, 12 Alexander Street, Toronto. Box Office — 416-975-8555
Photo credit John Karastamatis