Review: The Normal Heart (Studio 180 Theatre)

The Normal Heart playing at Toronto’s Buddies in Bad Times Theatre takes on the heartbreaking issues related to HIV/AIDS in the 1980’s gay community

The Normal Heart, now onstage at Buddies In Bad Times produced by Studio 180 Theatre, takes place during the onset of HIV/AIDS in the New York gay community in the 80’s. It’s about the fight to get attention and money paid to research a disease that no one wanted to acknowledge existed; it’s about the conflicting values between sexual freedom and curtailing a fatal epidemic; and it’s about watching the people you love die.

So bring some tissues. This one is a weeper.

But it’s not melodramatic, and it’s a very important play. Because this is all based on real events, real people.

It’s gratifying to watch it and see how far both LGBT positivity and HIV/AIDS treatment has come, but that necessarily makes you contemplate how far there still is to go.

When I got home I googled “whatever happened to that AIDS vaccine?” There are about five articles online with that title, all over a year old. That still means there’s work being done, but, as The Normal Heart points out so well, there has been much less investment in it than there should be because of the stigma of a “gay sex” disease. Even now that it is widely known that you can contract HIV via heterosexual sex (as well as other means), it’s still often seen as a gay issue and also as a problem with promiscuity.

This is what causes a deep divide between the activists in the play: they don’t know much, but they know it’s a sexually transmitted disease. But how do you advocate chastity after you’ve spent your whole life fighting for the right to even have sex? (With the partner of your choice, that is.)

One of the most touching scenes is a recently diagnosed patient asking his doctor what he could still do with his lover. It’s heart-breaking to see how much they did not know then. The doctor herself is in a wheelchair because she had contracted polio as a child, shortly before they discovered the polio vaccine. This aspect keeps the continued non-existence of an HIV/AIDS vaccine in the audience’s awareness.

Studio 180’s new production of the twenty-seven year old play is superb.  The sets are minimal, easily wheeled on and off the stage to the beat of 80’s dance music. But an ante is upped later in the play when the floor becomes increasingly messy, in a way that cannot be cleaned before the end of the show. It’s a striking metaphor.

When the play first started I thought Jonathan Wilson’s portrayal of protagonist Ned Weeks was too shrill but it soon became apparent that that is the only appropriate characterization, and that playwright Larry Kramer wrote him that way quite on purpose. You have to feel for him but you also have to feel that he really is a problem for his friends, and for the organization that he founded.

This play affected me very deeply. It made me want to hold close all my friends who are HIV positive – because there is good treatment these days, but there isn’t a cure. It made me dread the inevitability of people I love dying, from whatever disease or condition. And it made me angry that there has been so much pathologizing of gay sex, of “promiscuity”, to inhibit progress toward a cure or a vaccine. And it made me angry about the people who choose not to give their children the vaccines that we do have, for absolutely no medical reason and against all logic.

So go see this show. It’s powerful.

Note: This is a remount, and we did review last year’s production here at Mooney On Theatre. I want to address the issue that was raised then, about an able-bodied woman playing the doctor in a wheelchair (which is also true of the current production.) I acknowledge that it must be challenging to find skilled actors with disabilities. However that’s a double-edged sword because how is someone with a disability ever going to become an actor if the roles for them are being filled with able-bodied people?

I see progress in this being made in television. There’s a character with Down Syndrome on the first season of American Horror story, a character in a wheelchair on Private Practice and a character with cerebral palsy on Breaking Bad, all played by actors with the same respective conditions. I expect and hope for this trend to continue, and theatre to eventually catch up.


The Normal Heart by Studio 180 Theatre plays at Buddies In Bad Times, (12 Alexander street.) till
Nov 18, 2012.
-Showtimes are Tues-Sat 8 PM with matinees Thur 1 PM and Sat & Sun 2 PM
-Tickets are $25 to $49 with limited PWYC tickets on Sundays 2 PM performance
-Tickets are available from TicketKing 416-872-1212 or 1-800-461-3333 or online

Photo credit John Karastamatis

One thought on “Review: The Normal Heart (Studio 180 Theatre)”

  1. What an amazing cast. So glad to see this show again.
    Regarding the casting of able bodied Orstein as the doctor….it’s obvious the choice came down on the side of talent.

    As for Wilson being shrill….having you ever seen the real Kramer? Oi!
    Wilson finds a great balance IMO.

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