ST. PETERSBURG — Anyone with an open heart will find a number of ways to connect with the pain and struggles of the characters in The Normal Heart, now playing at Freefall Theatre. At various times in the performance, you'll hear sniffles, sometimes even stifled sobs, in the audience.
They aren't cathartic tears, but rather the type of tears that we've all shed for someone gone too soon. Credit a talented cast and an unflinching script for creating that bond with the audience. This is theater that makes you think.
It's the early '80s in New York and men are dying in rapidly escalating numbers of a nameless, frightening disease. But those men are gay and the establishment doesn't seem to give a flip. The mayor isn't doing much, nor is the federal government. By the time the disease is called AIDS, hundreds of men across the country have died.
While The Normal Heart, written by Larry Kramer and directed for Freefall by Larry Silverberg, lays out the politics of the time quite well, it's the story of the individual men that creates the drama. Facts are facts, but watching someone deal with a death sentence diagnosis is what delivers the punch to the gut.
Eric Davis, Freefall's artistic director, brings a ferocity (and a righteous mustache) to writer and activist Ned Weeks that prevents us from ever looking away. The play unfolds as Ned attempts to organize a group of gay men to raise awareness about the disease. He has his own demons, much of them created by a society that made him feel unwanted and unloved because of who he loved.
The fear of the disease is palpable, but so is being discovered as gay. Ned's lover, Felix, is a style writer at the New York Times and firmly in the closet. Justin Gordon plays Felix with a coquettish smile and a pink sweater tied around his neck. As their relationship deepens, Gordon takes Felix to some ugly depths and we are right there with him, shocked to see what this tidy and lovely man has become.
Mickey (Larry Alexander) and Bruce (Jim Sorensen) are also trying to keep their true selves secret, afraid of being fired from their establishment jobs. They both lose much more in their silence. Each has a turn to let us glimpse what is seething under their buttoned-up demeanors.
Roxanne Fay is Dr. Emma Brookner, who suspects the disease is being spread by sexual contact but has a difficult time convincing the group to share that information. They have been told how to live for so long, and refuse to take on what they see is a tyrannical role. Fay is steadfast and steely as the doctor who is watching young man after young man waste away and die. But she shows the humanity that wasn't widespread in the early days of the epidemic. Hers is a fantastic performance.
The sparse set design by Jerid Fox is inspired. There is a number of scene changes, with furniture being moved about by the cast and a few extras dressed as hospital staff. This gives the audience a moment to catch its breath. A large metal door, made by St. Petersburg artist Frank Strunk III, glides open and shut at the back of the stage, its heaviness evoking the graveness of the situation.
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The Normal Heart made its debut Off Broadway in 1985. Its indictment of a sitting mayor and president (Ed Koch and Ronald Reagan) was an in-your-face move, engineered by Kramer for maximum impact. A Broadway revival in 2011 won three Tonys, and an HBO production starring Mark Ruffalo, Julia Roberts and Jim Parsons debuts May 1.
The Freefall cast, guided by Kramer's timeless play about the struggle for acceptance and love, lead the audience on an emotional and thoughtful journey. It's a satisfying, heartfelt night at the theater.