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THEATER REVIEW : 10 Years Later, 'Heart' in Beat With the Times : Larry Kramer's 1984 polemic about the AIDS crisis is wry and relevant.

October 06, 1994|TODD EVERETT | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Of all the plays performed in local theaters, precious few are really about anything, and fewer still could be considered important in any immediate sense. One welcome exception is Larry Kramer's "The Normal Heart," a 1984 play that couldn't be more relevant a decade later. Its Ventura College run concludes this weekend.

While as serious as death itself, "The Normal Heart" is also entertaining and not without a measure of wry humor.

In truth, it's not so much a play as a polemic, born of Kramer's anger at the way the then-unfamiliar AIDS was spreading through New York City, unrecognized by the press, politicians, or medical establishment. Kramer's thesis is that AIDS went unrecognized for so long in great part because it was seen as "the gay disease." He sets "The Normal Heart" deep in the heart of New York's gay community, between 1981 and 1984.

Kramer's protagonist (and, most likely, surrogate) is Ned Weeks (Art McDermott), a writer whose frustration at what he sees turns him into an activist. He meets and falls in love with Felix Turner (Christopher Colone), a New York Times fashion reporter, and eventually forms an activist group whose membership also includes banker Bruce Niles (Todd R. Garrett) and hospital administrator Tommy Boatwright (Jeffrey H. Britt).

Engaging in civil disobedience, writing threatening letters to the mayor and advocating warning gays against sex altogether, Weeks is shunned by the others, who find his conduct embarrassing and a potential threat to both their personal security and their movement. In the meantime, the corpses of AIDS victims are piling up at an increasing rate.

The other--straight--side is represented by Ned's sister, Barbara (Sarah P. Meaney), an attorney who's indifferent to her brother's situation; and Dr. Emma Bruckner (Susan Wiltfang), confined to a wheelchair as the result of childhood polio and symbolizing those few physicians who initially recognized and fought AIDS. Then as now, dealing with AIDS primarily consisted of warning against practices that seem to lead to the disease, and making life as comfortable as possible for those who succumb to it.

While Kramer confines his play to the effect of AIDS on homosexuals--ignoring the dangers of unsanitary blood transfusions or dirty needles on drug users' syringes, for instance--he portrays a broad cross-section of gays, from the stereotypically flamboyant Weeks and Boatwright to the more conservative Turner to the almost totally closeted Bruce Niles, a former Green Beret.

More important, Kramer points out that AIDS is not a "gay disease," that heterosexuals are dying from it at a growing rate.

Kramer's message is important, of course, but "The Normal Heart" is no more a "gay play" than AIDS is a "gay disease." The play is the strongest drama seen in this area in some time, presented with conviction by a large cast under the direction of Ventura College's Judy Garay.

Weak points? There's some stilted line-reading (resulting in part from occasionally stilted dialogue), and the size of the college's theater causes everybody to shout too much of the time.

But at least they can be heard, and the message is chillingly clear.

Details

* WHAT: "The Normal Heart."

* WHEN: Friday and Saturday nights at 8 p.m.; closes Sunday at 3 p.m.

* WHERE: Ventura College Mainstage Theater, Loma Vista Road (west of Day Road), Ventura.

* COST: $7 general admission; $5 students, staff and seniors. VC ASB cardholders free.

* FYI: Includes realistic language and social situations. A discussion period follows each performance. For reservations or further information, call 648-8922.

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