WATERTOWN — Nearly four decades after it premiered, Larry Kramer’s “The Normal Heart” holds up quite well, as both a work of drama and as an expression of pure fury.
But its impact in performance, as with any play, ultimately depends on the caliber of the acting and direction, on how well it’s executed and how fully the writer’s vision is realized.
On all of those counts, “The Normal Heart” is in good hands at New Repertory Theatre.
Director Shira Helena Gitlin and a wholly committed cast, led by Dylan C. Wack and including the invaluable Will McGarrahan, have fashioned an intense and powerful production that’s worthy of its grim subject: the AIDS epidemic.
While conjuring the atmosphere of uncertainty and fear that took hold when AIDS first surfaced, New Rep’s “The Normal Heart” also captures the passion with which Kramer wrote this largely autobiographical play.
Wack brings a seething force to his portrayal of writer-activist Ned Weeks, who’s based on Kramer himself. Ned sets out to sound the alarm about a mysterious new disease that is cutting a lethal swath through the ranks of gay men in the early 1980s in New York City.
Ned knows only one speed — fast — and only one volume: loud. He’s a volcano always on the verge of erupting. Believing that “a cross between the League of Women Voters and the US Marines” is what’s needed, Ned spearheads the formation of an advocacy organization. (Kramer cofounded Gay Men’s Health Crisis.)
He pushes for action, across multiple fronts: federal funding for research and treatment, changes in sexual behavior within the gay community, pressure on officeholders and bureaucrats, and news coverage as prominent as the epidemic warrants. But it’s an uphill battle.
Ned’s zeal is matched by that of Dr. Emma Brookner (a very good Cailin Doran), who knows the gravity of the situation firsthand, inundated with AIDS patients as she is. But few others share Ned’s sense of urgency, and his combative personality has a way of wearing out even his allies, such as the organization’s buttoned-down president, Bruce Niles (Brian Demar Jones, excellent).
Ned favors more confrontational tactics than other members of the organization do in the battle against governmental and media indifference. (Let’s just say that neither former New York Mayor Ed Koch nor The New York Times are portrayed in a flattering light.)
The AIDS crisis hits home all too literally for Ned, whose lover, Felix Turner (Chingwe Padraig Sullivan), is a style writer at the Times. Ned is close with his brother, Ben, portrayed by Luis Negrón, but their relationship grows increasingly contentious because Ben can’t conceal his struggles to accept his sibling’s sexuality. (Negrón is solid, but appearance-wise, he and Wack seem more like father and son than brothers.)
One of the enduring strengths of “The Normal Heart” is that it doesn’t let you forget the extent to which homophobia was at the root of inaction by elected officials — all the way to the White House — and how that inaction allowed the AIDS crisis to worsen, cutting short so many lives.
That’s worth bearing in mind now. On Friday, in a setback for gay rights, the Supreme Court ruled that a Colorado graphic artist who plans to design wedding websites can refuse to provide services to same-sex couples. Justice Clarence Thomas has previously said the court should reconsider rulings that legalized same-sex relations and same-sex marriage. Meanwhile, certain ambitious politicians are doing all they can to erase stories about gay figures from school books.
Against that backdrop, the anguish of Mickey Marcus, a city health department employee portrayed by McGarrahan, registers with particular poignancy. McGarrahan is transfixing in a scene in Act Two when Mickey’s emotional exhaustion pours out of him. “Don’t you remember how it was?” he asks Ned. “Can’t you see how important it is for us to love openly, without hiding and without guilt?”
Newspaper clippings and book pages are strewn across paneled walls upstage and on the stage itself (the scenic design is by Melody Hsu). Then, in Act Two, in a sign that the death toll has mounted, the floor is covered with medical records and photos of patients and sheets bearing grim statistics on the epidemic.
Wack effectively conveys the cracks of vulnerability and self-doubt that emerge in Ned’s wall of certitude. “There’s so much death around,” Ned says despairingly at one point. It’s as if, for this most voluble of men, there’s nothing left to say. But there is much left to do.
THE NORMAL HEART
Play by Larry Kramer. Directed by Shira Helena Gitlin. Presented by New Repertory Theatre. At Black Box Theater, Mosesian Center for the Arts, Watertown. Through July 9. Tickets $30. 617-923-8487, www.newrep.org