Sunday, October 23, 2016

THE NORMAL HEART



Written by Larry Kramer
Produced by Nikki Fitzgerald and Jarrad West
Directed by Karen Vickery
Lighting design by Roni Wilkinson
Presented by Everyman Theatre
Courtyard Studio, Canberra Theatre Centre until 29th October

Reviewed by Bill Stephens

Larry Kramer’s searing play about events surrounding the emergence of AIDS epidemic in New York between 1981 and 1984 is given a compelling production by Everyman Theatre.

Largely autobiographical, the play is based on Kramer’s own experiences as a gay activist, and his fight to secure funds for research into the disease. While the names are different, the characters represent those in Kramer’s circle at the time.

Karen Vickery’s direction of the play is masterly. Presented against a stark white background covered with the names of those who have died of AIDS, with just the addition of some items of furniture, moved into position by the cast when required, relying on Roni Wilkinson’s spare lighting design to indicate changes of locale and time, Vickery’s direction focusses the attention squarely on the text, and the skill of her actors, to obtain maximum effect, carefully creating an atmosphere of mounting panic and desperation in which her characters grapple with the inexplicable,  Vickery has drawn remarkable performances from her accomplished cast, as they unflinchingly portray the layers of conflicting emotions and motivations.

Will Huang (Felix Turner) - Jarrad  West (Ned Weeks) 

Jarrad West, in one of his best performances to date as Ned Weeks, the character based on the real-life Kramer, manages to generate sympathy for the charismatic, driven soul, so secure in his belief of his view of events that he alienates even those closest to him, including his doomed lover, the New York Times writer, Felix Turner, played with affecting sincerity by Will Huang.

Jordan Best also gives a striking performance, as Doctor Emma Brookner, the only female character  in the play, who, having been stricken with a virus herself, although not the one that’s the subject of the play, goads and tantalises Ned, before becoming his strongest advocate.

Robert deFries, impresses with his strong, sympathetic depiction of Ned’s loyal brother, Ben, who battles his own reservations and ambitions in an effort to acquiesce to Ned’s constant demands for unconditioned loyalty and financial support.

As Ned’s loyal friends and campaign supporters, Michael Sparks as an insecure older gay, and Riley Bell, younger and more flamboyant, both offer thoughtful, resonant performances which contrast neatly with the strongly drawn characterisation of Christopher Zuber as Bruce Niles, initially Ned’s supporter, but ultimately his rival when he takes over the Presidency of the organisation Ned has set up to fight the epidemic.

Teig Sadhana, and Christopher Carroll, both undertake dual roles, in small, compelling cameos.

Will Huang (Felix Turner) - Jarrad West (Ned Weeks) 


Thankfully, authorities did heed the voices of those early activists and many who followed them, and with knowledge, much has been achieved in the education of the most vulnerable. Extensive research has resulted in successful treatments, so that AIDS is no longer the death sentence it was when this play was written.  Never the less, this production of  “The Normal Heart” is a potent illustration of the way humans react when faced with an incomprehensible peril, and a timely warning against complacency.  

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