Review: The Normal Heart

The Normal Heart is raw, heartbreaking, and a visceral exploration of the AIDS epidemic of the 80s

Five people on a theatre set. One is leaning on a dark cabinet, two are standing in the middle of the room, one is sitting on the red couch and the last is standing behind the couch. One of the men in the middle of the room is shouting at the one seated on the couch. Photo: Elinor Higgins

To call Larry Kramer’s The Normal Heart simply a play would be disingenuous; it was written as a cry for help when the Reagan administration didn’t know — and then, didn’t care — about the sheer amount of gay men inexplicably dropping dead from a virus later known as AIDS. It was a declaration that a community already experiencing social death was, on a far more literal level, dying out. It was a prayer that anyone beyond the gay community would care.  

The Normal Heart is incontrovertibly a product of its time — its vernacular produced the occasional uncomfortable groan. The Keith Haring artwork and magazine cutouts of muscular men lining the walls of The Actor’s Pulse (after a relocation from the Cellar Theatre) firmly situated the play in its historical context, as did the inclusion of a tub of Ben & Jerry’s — the chain was still in its infancy in the early 1980s. It’s something of a poetic coincidence that the same brand consciously included in a play with queerness at its core recently declared their support for marriage equality.

Incidentally, Ben & Jerry’s aided the show in reaching one of its most heartwarming points — watching Joshua Shendiak and Riley Dolahenty, between kisses, feed each other melted ice cream as if it were soup or coffee was one of the moments that caught me most off-guard. I say this not as a pejorative, but because to call it a humanising scene would be to disregard how chillingly effectively the actors humanised the AIDS epidemic.

Shendiak and Dolahenty’s synergy was superb and made the trauma of a dying community infinitely more tangible. The former played Ned Weeks — the autobiographical representation of Kramer himself — and delivered an infallible and passionate performance, while the latter’s nuanced portrayal of Felix Turner saw witty humour and a well-contoured emotional narrative.

Rhian Mordaunt’s portrayal of Tommy was energetic and unfailingly hilarious. There is an audible difference between polite giggles and genuine amusement, and Rhian elicited the latter without fail. His emotional growth was impressive, too: he captured the requisite delicateness surrounding the inescapable feeling of death.

Rosie Licence — who played the role of Dr. Emma Brookner — was another highlight. However, SUDS is no stranger to criticism when it comes to the engagement of minority groups — the society seems to be a serial victim of claims that its shows are overwhelmingly white and exclude PoC identities. This time, the controversy was the casting of Licence — an able-bodied person — in the role of a wheelchair user. Symptomatic of a culture that lacks the requisite sensitivity, this shouldn’t be overlooked: representation matters.

Technically, the show progressed smoothly. There was, however, too much dead time between select scenes where the audience was left in darkness awaiting the reappearance of actors. Seconds too long can feel like minutes; this can probably be put down to the change in performance space, though, and its impact on the show was minimal.

The Normal Heart was raw, heartbreaking, and a show that made the trauma of the AIDS epidemic disconcertingly tangible. The cast achieved the emotional depth necessary and did justice to Larry Kramer’s cry for help and prayer for an open ear. Indeed, the performance was not only heard, but listened to.

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