‘The Normal Heart’ Beats Strong at The Brookfield Theatre for the Arts

Photo Credit: Stephen Cihanek Photography

Photo Credit: Stephen Cihanek Photography

It is a Tuesday night. You pour yourself a glass of wine, fire up the laptop and log on to your favorite social media site. You scroll through post after post about the Ebola virus. Some people make jokes, some criticize the President’s response, some admonish the management of the first cases in the United States and some decry the mistreatment of the health care workers whose life’s work is to eradicate the world of this disease. Fearmongers and realists abound as we attempt to make sense of an admittedly scary situation.

Now replace the word Ebola in the above paragraph with AIDS.

In the early 80s, New York based writer Larry Kramer watched HIV/AIDS rush relentlessly into the lives of the gay community and take hold, only to let go when its victims exhaled their dying breath. The then mysterious disease received little, if any, attention from the media, City Hall, the federal government or the medical community. Even those that seemed to be in immediate danger from the disease ignored early cautionary guidance urging them to stop having sex as a way to prevent transmission of the disease. With no viral media and the minimal coverage relegated to page six, Kramer was prompted to become the co-founder of the Gay Men’s Health Crisis to advocate for the research into the cause of this insidious disease. Hold a mirror up to Kramer’s life, place a pen in his hand and the result is The Normal Heart, the award-winning autobiographical drama now playing at The Brookfield Theatre for the Arts.

Photo Credit: Stephen Cihanek Photograpy

Photo Credit: Stephen Cihanek Photograpy

In recent years, The Normal Heart, which was originally produced at The Public Theater in 1985, has received revitalized critical acclaim with a star-studded turn on Broadway and a film adaptation for HBO. Kramer’s play is a diatribe against the hurdles faced by the gay community in the early 80s and it is infused with anger, frustration and profound sadness. Despite the clear agenda of the script, Kramer crafts intricate and diverse characters, men with subtle differences who paint the common thread of HIV/AIDS with their own personal reactions to the epidemic.

The principal character of Ned Weeks, portrayed with great passion and intricacy by Michael Wright, is the embodiment of Kramer himself. Weeks is deeply committed to his cause and is justifiably angry at the reaction, or lack thereof, to this mysterious “gay cancer” pervading his life and the lives of those around him. He is bombastic to a fault and is never afraid to speak his mind, which sometimes has devastating results. Wright delivers the performance of a lifetime as he navigates the demanding range of emotions penned by Kramer. The rage and pathos demonstrated by Wright are tempered by moments of self-deprecating humor and quiet gentleness, resulting in what can be defined as a tour de force accomplishment.

As Weeks’ lover  and New York Times style reporter Felix, Miles Everett is both gentile and impassioned. In the earlier moments of the play, Everett came off as reserved and uncomfortable, which was perhaps a directorial choice given the awkward first encounters he has with Weeks. As his performance progressed, however, he eased into the role and, once there, delivered some of the production’s most heartbreaking and honest moments.

Vicki Sosbe’s portrayal of the wheelchair-bound Dr. Emma Brookner is terse and ferocious. Based on  real-life physician and early HIV/AIDS researcher Linda Laubenstein, Dr. Brookner is uncompromising in her quest to find the cause of the disease that is ravaging the gay community while issuing warnings to anyone who will listen, be it the government or her patients. Sosbe’s monologue, delivered to a bureaucrat holding the purse strings for grant funds, is blazing and brutally honest, worthy of mid-performance applause.

Photo Credit: Stephen Cihanek Photography

Photo Credit: Stephen Cihanek Photography

Each character in Kramer’s play has a moment where the audience is allowed to peer into the most
harrowing moments of the effect HIV/AIDS had on the gay community. Todd Santa Maria’s poignant depiction of mothers flying into to town to say goodbye to their sons, Kyle Pinto’s off-handed representation of the indifference of Mayor Koch’s administration, Christopher Bird’s self-centered and uneasy approach to sibling acceptance and Michael Reilly’s fearful account of the possibility of government conspiracy, quarantine and loss of insurance are all threads in this most intricate tapestry. Of particular note is J. Scott Williams, as Weeks’ adversarial and closeted friend. His heartrending account of taking his dying lover to see his mother is a devastating recollection of the fear, agony and discrimination experienced by those afflicted with HIV/AIDS.

Andy Okell’s white diorama set-design, reminiscent of the designs used in the Off-Broadway and Broadway productions, served its function as a canvas for the effective projections utilized throughout the production. However, for the majority of the performance, images are not projected, making the flat white walls appear stark. Likewise, Brian Casella’s lighting design lacked color and texture that could have given the set more dimension. Instead, the lighting often left the actors washed out or cast in shadow.

Under David Bass’ detailed and clearly heartfelt direction, The Normal Heart comes off as what it should be: an actor’s play with a glimpse into our recent history when action was necessary. A different course of action may have helped slow the spread of a disease that has resulted in 39 million deaths worldwide since 1981. Larry Kramer was a trailblazer of HIV/AIDS activism, earning his recent inclusion in the Out100 as not only an activist and writer but as a legend.

In our community we often see theatrical pieces referred to as important. While I postulate that all theatre on some level is important, The Normal Heart is, without doubt, one of the most important plays of our time. I urge you to make time in your schedule to see this accomplished interpretation of a rarely produced theatrical gem at The Brookfield Theatre for the Arts.

THE NORMAL HEART runs November 14, 15, 21 and 22 at 8:00pm and November 16 at 2:00pm. Tickets for all shows are $19.99 for General Admission. Students will be admitted for $15. Tickets available at www.brookfieldtheatre.org.

Gripping NEXT TO NORMAL Brings Mental Illness to Light

N2N - Cihanek

When dealing with mental illness in this modern age of instant gratification, we struggle with the notion that there is no magic pill, no simple fix. In Brian Yorkey and Tom Kitt’s Next To Normal, which opened on July 4th at The Brookfield Theatre for the Arts, the Goodman family navigates the rocky terrain of bipolar disorder and grief in what most would consider an unlikely topic for a musical.

The central character of the show, Diana Goodman (Juliette Garrison Koch), has long been suffering from bipolar manic-depressive episodes and swings between “manic, magic days” and “dark, depressing nights,” sometimes carrying her family with her, sometimes knocking them down in the process. Diana’s husband, Dan (Chuck Stango) and their two kids, Natalie (Sydney Coelho) and Gabe (Luke Garrison), struggle to keep in step with Diana as they seek comfort from Diana’s doctors (Keith Guinta) or Natalie’s sweet, stoner boyfriend Henry (Matt Madden).

The winner of the 2010 Pulitzer Prize for Drama, Next To Normal is under the deft direction of Michael Burnett, who has proven time and again that challenging his performers and his audience with difficult subject matter yields powerful results. The expository first act moves swiftly and sets you up perfectly for a gut-wrenching second act.

As Diana, Juliette Garrison Koch takes on a physically, vocally and emotionally demanding role with great aplomb. Easing between the quiet, tender moments to the wild, frenzied ones, the audience genuinely feels the torture of Diana having to choose between a drug-induced catatonia and a medication-free instability. Ms. Koch owns the stage during some of the bigger, belted numbers but the moments when the grief gently bubbles to the surface are her most memorable. During her anguish-filled rendition of “How Could I Ever Forget?” she grabs onto your heart and grips it relentlessly until the final curtain.

Sydney Coelho’s portrayal of Diana’s troubled teenage daughter Natalie is at once explosive and poignant. Her powerful vocals shine in the character’s signature song “Superboy and the Invisible Girl” while the gentler moments when she acknowledges her fear of becoming like her mother are heartbreaking and unforgettable.

Luke Garrison, as Gabe, drifts in and out of the shadows with confidence, inserting himself into the action with a menacing rock-star quality as he constantly tugs at the very fiber holding the family together. Garrison’s strong voice and youthful presence during his solo “I’m Alive” perfectly exemplify this charismatic character.

Chuck Stango brings great heart to the role of Dan, Diana’s faithful and determined husband, desperate to fix what is broken. Newcomer Keith Guinta delivers a crisp take on Drs. Fine & Madden, with effortlessly clear vocals. Matt Madden is charming as the patient and quirky Henry.

Music director Nsangi Kariamu expertly leads a five piece orchestra and vocal director Diane Lapine guided the cast through Kitt’s complex score. Kariamu is able to musically direct the cast through the production from a location upstage, a position that can be challenging for both performers and orchestra alike. The orchestra is buoyant, finding moments where the musical shifts evoke more emotional response than some of the spoken scenes, a sign of a well-crafted score meeting flawless execution.

Laura Baxter’s set design, with its similar-yet-assymetrical “N” shaped windows and floating white platforms against a black void, perfectly represents the imbalance of the Goodman household. Justin Morgan’s lighting design lends to the rock concert feel of Diana’s internal monologue and gradually and subtly becomes devoid of color as her mind is emptied of troubling memories. Wendy Yung’s sound design was a little uneven at the beginning of the show, making it difficult to hear certain lyrics, but seemed to resolve itself throughout the course of the evening. From the manic reds to the post-ECT greys and blues, Meg Jones’ costume design is well thought out and aptly reflects Diana’s mental state throughout the show.

In a time when commodity and jukebox musicals pervade the landscape of the modern musical, it is important that original pieces that break the mold are given life in an accessible and affordable setting. Next To Normal is a significant musical for our generation and it is beautifully and lovingly staged at The Brookfield Theatre for the Arts.


Next To Normal runs at The Brookfield Theatre for the Arts, 184 Whisconier Road, Brookfield. Friday, July 4-Saturday, July 26, 8 p.m. $20-$15. 203-775-0023, tbta@brookfieldtheatre.org.