When playwright Larry Kramer's "The Normal Heart" premiered in 1985, HIV/AIDS was a mysterious, frightening force — an "insidious killer," as a doctor puts it in the play — wreaking deadly havoc.
Thankfully, treatment with powerful antiretroviral drugs can now suppress the disease and save lives. Still, it's sobering to remember that nearly 700,000 Americans have died since HIV/AIDS began its rampage, and that many of the victims have been gay or bisexual men.
"The Normal Heart" didn't reach the small screen for nearly three decades, not until director Ryan Murphy and Kramer turned it into an Emmy Award-winning HBO movie in 2014. But this angry, political, moving play has continued to live onstage, with countless productions in regional theaters and a belated Broadway debut in 2011.
Outré Theatre Company, now back in Boca Raton after presenting its work at the Broward Center for a bit more than a season, has begun its latest chapter at the Showtime Performing Arts Theatre with "The Normal Heart." And though director Doug Wetzel's production is uneven, it is impassioned, often compelling and ultimately devastating.
"The Normal Heart" is a dispatch from the front lines of the then unnamed HIV/AIDS crisis in New York circa 1981 to 1984. Its central figure is a firebrand writer and activist named Ned Weeks (Seth Trucks). Like Kramer, a founder of the Gay Men's Health Crisis and ACT UP, Ned is demanding, outspoken and confrontational. He has no patience for the more subtle, politically cautious tactics advocated by others, some of whom choose to remain closeted because of their high-profile jobs.
Besides working together to get an organization much like the Gay Men's Health Crisis off the ground, the men often encounter each other at the office of Emma Brookner (Elizabeth Price), a brutally honest doctor whose life was altered by childhood polio. She is treating too many cases of this new killer disease, sounding the alarm, appealing for the research funding that might eventually lead to a cure. Mostly, her words fall on deaf ears. But Ned listens.
At some point, Ned is at odds with just about everyone in his life. His brother Ben (Ben Prayz), a lawyer far more interested in building a stunning multimillion-dollar home than in doing pro bono work for Ned's organization, loves his outspoken brother. But Ned's sexual orientation remains a seemingly insurmountable wedge between them.
Ned's colleagues in the organization — particularly Mickey Marcus (Lawrence Buzzeo), a writer for the city's health department; Tommy Boatwright (Robert Fritz), a Southern charmer; and Bruce Niles (Christopher Mitchell), a handsome and closeted Citibank vice president — disagree with his tactics. In a long-delayed meeting with Hiram Keebler (Michael H. Small), a closeted representative of then Mayor Ed Koch, the men try various forms of diplomacy and persuasion. Ned yells, insults and alienates.
Kramer shows other dimensions of Ned through his exhilarating, heartbreaking relationship with Felix Turner (Conor Walton), a social and fashion reporter for the New York Times. Felix is divorced, a father, closeted, smart, magnetic. Ned is Ned. But the two click, and in the space of a few years, experience deep love and terrible tragedy.
Running nearly three hours, "The Normal Heart" has several heart-stopping moments, including Buzzeo's impressive delivery of Mickey's talking nervous breakdown, Mitchell's devastating account of the horrific death of Bruce's lover, and the explosive confrontation between Ned and a terrified Felix.
Staged by Wetzel on a simple set with black walls sporting chalk-written facts and statistics, the play loses a little of its steam during frequent scene changes, as the actors necessarily move furniture and props.
The performances vary qualitatively, from the beginner-level work done by a student actor to the subtle, effective, no-nonsense compassion conveyed by Price. Beginning in a too-subdued fashion as Ned, Trucks eventually becomes the loud, insistent activist. While it's true that the character should build, in the early going, this interpretation belies other characters' descriptions of Ned. Walton, however, is memorable from start to finish, evolving from a man who lives with charismatic confidence to a tragic figure who nonetheless becomes a healing force. His performance is one of the most compelling reasons to catch Outré's "Normal Heart."
As with the play's characters, we live in volatile times. For all the progress made in LGBTQ rights, civil rights, women's rights — in other words, human rights — there are those who would be only too happy to revert to the bad old days of inequality and repression. "The Normal Heart" takes its title from a phrase in W.H. Auden's poem "September 1, 1939." The final line in the two stanzas reprinted in Kramer's script reads: "We must love one another or die." Like that line, the play is a timeless cry for compassion.
"The Normal Heart" is running through Oct. 9 at the Showtime Performing Arts Theatre, 503 SE Mizner Blvd., in Boca Raton. Showtimes are 8 p.m. Thursday-Saturday and 2 p.m. Sunday. Tickets cost $40 ($30 seniors, $20 students). To order, call 866-811-4111 or go to OutreTheatreCompany.com.