With Ebola on everyone’s minds right now, it’s good to remember that AIDS, which is a relative of Ebola, has been in America far longer and has killed far more people. It’s kind of an uncanny coincidence, then, that the Off Center Theater in Crown Center, is currently running “The Normal Heart”.
“The Normal Heart” is a riveting, passionate look at the very beginning of the AIDS crisis in America – before anyone even knew what it was. It’s also basically an autobiographical story of the playwright and activist Larry Kramer.
It’s about a man named Ned (played here by TJ Lancaster) who is alarmed that his friends are starting to die more quickly than they should, and with the same symptoms. He meets a doctor, Emma Brookner (played by Vanessa Davis), who is in the middle of the dying men, and is desperate to figure out what’s going on. They try to get the word about the virus out to the wider gay community – with almost no results.
What makes this play so powerful is that it’s not just a history of AIDS. It’s an enraged, brutally honest look at how everyone was ignoring the rise of this disease – all for different reasons. Nobody escapes the blame for the epidemic that is almost considered normal today. Gay, straight, religious, or political; no angle of the disease is left unexamined. Nobody gets off the hook.
It’s an ambitious play because it is so emotional and demands such commitment from the actors. For a small theater company like Off Center Theatre, it could be hard to attract a cast of actors capable of pulling this off. But they did. All the actors commit themselves to their characters with a ferocity that I rarely see on a stage. More than one audience member left the theater crying – myself included.
The stage setting is brilliantly understated. Mostly black and white, the most noticeable thing about it is the big wall full of black marks. When a character in the play dies, he adds his own mark to the wall. It’s a silent slap in the face, a voiceless reminder that there are people behind the statistics.
This is an important play. It’s a mixture of science, politics, guilt, fear, and the human relationships that are formed and destroyed in the middle of it all. It’s a shame that this production lies lurking on the third floor of Crown Center – it deserves a more prominent place of production.
If you are interested in human rights, history, social justice, love, or the intersection of the human mind with a mindless, mysterious killer, you must see this play.
The Normal Heart performances are at 8 p.m. on October 13,16,17 and 18 at the Off Center Theatre in Crown Center, 2450 Grand Avenue, Kansas City, Mo. Tickets can be purchased at the box office by calling (816) 545-6000 or at: Tickets.