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THEATER REVIEW : 'THE NORMAL HEART' : Reality Check : The PCPA Theaterfest captures the devastating drama of the early years of the AIDS crisis.

April 18, 1991|PHILIP BRANDES | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

It is early 1983. A dumbfounded doctor stares at the National Institutes of Health official who has rejected her funding application for research into the mysterious affliction stalking New York's male homosexual population, a disease now known to be transmitted heterosexually as well.

The doctor has accumulated more case histories, test data and frozen blood and tissue samples than anyone else in the world, yet her participation in the investigation is not welcome. She is even being told not to cooperate with French researchers who have isolated a promising virus.

In mounting frustration, the doctor becomes increasingly shrill. Why can't she get even minimal funding when $20 million was spent investigating seven deaths from poisoned Tylenol? No other health emergency during this century ever faced a delay like this, and time is running out. "You want my patients? Take them! TAKE THEM!" she screams, hurling an armful of folders--each one a case file, each one a death sentence.

Joseph Papp first staged Larry Kramer's devastating drama about the early years of the AIDS crisis in 1985. "The Normal Heart" polarized audiences with its stark, confrontational style. Supporters cheered its tough-minded determination to bring long-suppressed facts into the open. Detractors reviled it as offensive and needlessly alarmist.

For the Record
Los Angeles Times Thursday April 25, 1991 Ventura County Edition Ventura County Life Part J Page 4 Column 2 Zones Desk 1 inches; 20 words Type of Material: Correction
In last week's review of "The Normal Heart," the lead actor was identified as Frederick Sarbour. The correct spelling is Frederic Barbour.

Six years later, in a courageous production at PCPA Theaterfest, the play remains every bit as confrontational and will doubtless still offend its share of viewers. But time has shown its depiction of the AIDS threat to be all too justified.

Even more disturbing, the problems Kramer exposed about our society's response to this epidemic are still with us. His message is all the more urgent when the worldwide body count continues to mount.

Taking us out of the realm of abstract statistics into flesh-and-blood reality is the potent province of theater, and Pacific Conservatory of the Performing Arts brings this crisis to life with riveting ensemble performances. It's an overpowering emotional event, as deeply intimate as it is political.

For one thing, the play carries the conviction of personal history. The events surrounding the central character, writer and homosexual Ned Weeks (Frederick Sarbour), are drawn from Kramer's frustrating experiences as a founder and activist for the Gay Men's Health Crisis in New York during the onset of the AIDS epidemic.

The play begins in an atmosphere of uncertainty in 1981 with Weeks' discovery that his friends are dying from the as-yet-unnamed disease. No test has even been developed to identify potential carriers. The doctor treating many of these cases (Teresa Thurman) urges Weeks, as an articulate gay spokesman, to warn his readers about the danger of their promiscuity.

Not an easy task. He's beset by resistance from other homosexuals, for a variety of reasons. Kramer skillfully invests his characters with their own unique conflicts and points of view. Some are crusaders like Mickey (Brad Carroll), who see promiscuity as the hard-won prize in a long fight against discrimination, not to be given up. Others, like Bruce (Jack Greenman), are unwilling to take a strong stand because they're afraid to expose their homosexuality to public scrutiny. And in some ways, Weeks is his own worst enemy, alienating potential supporters with his militant fury.

That AIDS made its first inroads among this country's homosexual population has proved the biggest single obstacle to combatting it. Kramer's dissection of the epidemic's early stages is merciless in showing everyone's complicity in the inertia. Both federal and local governments were opposed to anything that might be construed as an endorsement of homosexuality (though the mayor offers the activists $9,000 under the table with the provision that the source not be revealed).

Medical research did not begin in earnest until 19 months after the declaration of an epidemic, and media coverage was minimal (the New York Times wrote about it seven times during the same period, as opposed to 54 articles on the Tylenol scare).

The play's politics are mixed with humor and human insight that add to its impact, for Kramer is an expert dramatist as well as an accurate reporter. The scenes between Weeks and his resolutely nonpolitical lover (Jeremy Mann) and his disapproving straight brother (Jonathan Gillard Daly) are especially important in balancing Weeks' near messianic activism with his own fears and limitations.

This play is recommended for mature audiences. Profanity becomes more frequent with the characters' growing sense of helplessness. Depictions of affection between men in some scenes are far from erotic or sensationalistic, but they show frankly that the characters need love and relationships as much as any other human being.

To see those connections severed by death is to share in the same agonizing experience of loss that is being played out daily in hospitals throughout the world.

In one of the discussions between audience and cast that follow every performance, director James Edmondson spoke of theater's responsibility to take people into other communities and broaden their sense of human connection, a goal he has achieved admirably with this production. As he succinctly put it, "On the hospital bed, we're all the same."

* WHERE AND WHEN

"The Normal Heart" will be performed through April 27 at the Backstage Theatre in Solvang and May 8 to 19 at the Allan Hancock College Interim Theatre in Santa Maria. Evening performances on Thursdays, Fridays, and Saturdays are at 8 and Sundays at 7 for $13; Saturday and Sunday matinees at 2 p.m. on May 11 and 12 and 18 and 19 are $10. Call (800) 221-9496 for reservations or information.

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