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Love or die

A terrifying journey to the dawn of AIDS

Emotions and ideas rage full force in Studio 180’s breathtaking remount of The Normal Heart, on now at Buddies in Bad Times Theatre.

Larry Kramer’s semi-autobiographical play is a searing indictment of willful blindness in the face of tragedy  by politicians like former New York mayor Ed Koch and former US president Ronald Reagan, by homophobes happy to let faggots die in droves and by gay men of all stripes, from activists and closeted powerbrokers to self-involved disco bunnies. But the play isn’t just outrage; it has surprising heart.

Jonathan Wilson gives a superlative performance as Ned Weeks, a writer for the gay newspaper The Native, who realizes something terrible is happening in 1981 as friend after friend comes down with a strange infection. They are dying and the numbers of dead gay men is growing exponentially.

Weeks’ understanding of the severity of the situation is crystallized by Emma Brookner, a doctor to many of the afflicted. She’s been trying to raise the alarm for months within the medical establishment  to no avail  by the time Weeks shows up to interviews her. Sarah Orenstein is perfect as a steely-eyed doctor, paralyzed by polio, whose deadpan demeanour disguises deep wells of compassion and strength. Her refusal to gloss over the emerging disaster buoys Weeks’ resolve and he sets out to hector, cajole and insult anyone and everyone who refuses to see, report on or respond to the rising death toll. Wilson delivers a torrent of words at full volume and somehow manages to humanize the harangue. The first act plays out like a championship boxing match, with Weeks going toe-to-toe with fellow activists, friends and family.

Indeed, John Thompson’s simple square set with lighting by Kimberly Purtell, evokes a boxing ring, and a disco and an operating theatre…. The production maintains the drama’s high-octane energy with adept choreography for playing in the round, tight scene changes, and evocative music clips that magically transport you back in time (which Thompson’s costumes, sadly, fail to do).

This is my first exposure to the play. I didn’t see Studio 180’s original production last year because I feared it would be too speech-y, a strident, outdated relic. I was so wrong. In fact, I think the passage of time has helped the play.

For grief-stricken and terrorized gay men, the play must have been an overwhelming experience when it debuted in 1985. For straight audiences, the play’s depiction of affection between gay men must have been as shocking as its fiery rhetoric.  (Remember: It wasn’t that long ago that a Toronto film reviewer could write unabashedly of finding the sight of two men kissing on screen repugnant.)  Now audiences can see the love story at the beating heart of the play; now we can identify with the universal human failings of people trapped by terrifying forces beyond their understanding. We can see The Normal Heart for what it is: A beautifully told romance during a time of plague and persecution.

It’s fascinating how the political divide among gays of the early ’80s foreshadow our current debate over gay identity and sex  more specifically, lots of sex with multiple partners. With the ghosts of the Holocaust clamouring in his head, Weeks, a self-declared loudmouth Jew, becomes both hero and pariah in the still young gay rights movement. In the early ’80s, gay liberation is equated with sexual liberation, with promiscuity; Weeks’ persistent demand that gay men stop having sex (at least temporarily, until the mechanics of infection are better understood) is anathema to many gay leaders.

Ryan Kelly as Mickey Marcus puts tender flesh on this divide. As an activist working alongside Weeks, Marcus is forced to confront the terrifying thought that the gay liberation he’s fought for over the years has become a death sentence. That terror fills the theatre during Kelly’s heartrending final scene.

For all its rage and despair The Normal Heart has a lot of humour. Comedy arises from characters’ needs and the lengths they go to assuage them and The Normal Heart is filled with wonderfully needy characters. Weeks’ scenes with his elder brother, a successful lawyer, are highlights, with John Bourgeois making a superb straight-laced but conflicted father figure.

Director Joel Greenberg mines this difficult material for all its worth and his ensemble respond with uniformly strong performances. Martin Happer shines as Bruce Niles, a young, angelic southerner who tries to keep the peace among his warring colleagues.

Jeff Miller plays Weeks’ love interest Felix Turner, a fashion and scene writer for the New York Times and the first man to capture Weeks’ heart. Their first date is beautifully observed, tender and amusing. Turner’s journey brings AIDS into focus in a way all of Weeks’ sermonizing can’t. He’s the blithe happy homosexual who’s bluster and bravado are no match for such an awful disease. At one point, after numerous bouts of chemo, he’s ready to give up, and rages at his helpless, shell-shocked lover.  Devastating. Cue the sniffles in the audience that get louder and louder by the time Turner reaches his deathbed. It’s an exhilarating, exhausting journey.

And a long one with a running time of two hours and 45 minutes. My original fear wasn’t totally unwarranted. The second act does drag a bit with one or two too many speeches. For example, after being forced out of the group he founded Weeks’ lists a score of accomplished gay men throughout history. It feels more like a political tactic than a true emotional response. But it’s a minor quibble. In resurrecting this heralded production as part of its 10th-anniversary season, Studio 180 not only makes fresh the horrors of a fascinating and terrifying point in our history, the company also reveals Larry Kramer to be a great playwright.

THE NORMAL HEART Continues at Buddies in Bad Times Theatre until Sun, Nov 18. (416) 872-1212. studio180theatre.com.