There's something remarkable about the staying power of The Normal Heart. Larry Kramer's raw agitprop piece about the earliest days of the AIDS crisis and Gay Men's Health Crisis, the group Kramer helped found to fight the unknown malady, was as much a public service announcement as GMHC's flyers when the play premiered at New York's Public Theater in 1985. It was a stage stand-in for the lack of acknowledgement by various governments or urgent enough coverage by mainstream news outlets (The New York Times comes in for particular savaging), as well as what Kramer saw as the shortcomings of gay leadership including his own organization, which by that point had cut him loose.
And yet for all of Kramer's focus on minutiae—including his blindered grudge against New York mayor Ed Koch overriding deserved bile for more powerful politicians like President Ronald Reagan—The Normal Heart survives not as a dated artifact but as a vital time capsule. While the status quo for HIV and AIDS continues to evolve, Kramer's play feels more powerful in Nick Bowling's penetrating new production for TimeLine Theatre Company than when I first read it, a dozen years after its debut.
For the generations that've followed that of Kramer's surrogate Ned Weeks (David Cromer) and his cohort, growing up with HIV as a lurking specter or, later, an apparently manageable disease, the play's chronicling of the unknowing, unknowable terror of those early days is a much-needed history lesson.
It's also a reminder of just how recent a history this is; astonishing tandem work by sound designer Andrew Hansen and video designer Michael Stanfill, whose output is projected onto scenic and lighting designer Brian Sidney Bembridge's versatile sliding screens, is chillingly effective at setting up scenes in their proper context: While the world was focused on Reagan's inauguration, Charles and Diana's wedding and Who Shot J.R., gay men were beginning to drop like flies from diseases "caused by germs that wouldn't hurt a baby, not a baby in New York City anyway," as no-nonsense doctor Emma Brookner (Mary Beth Fisher) puts it.
Cromer, better known these days as a director than an actor, still seems at times to be finding his way into a character that must be both righteously fiery and coldly off-putting. As Kramer wrote them, the scenes depicting Ned with fellow organizers—played here by Joel Gross, Stephen Rader and Alex Weisman—can read as mouthpiecey, yet all four actors find moments of truthful connection. Rader has a particularly searing outburst as a veteran of the gay liberation movement, having spent years fighting for a guilt-free sexuality that now seems to carry the threat of death.
It's in scenes with Fisher's wheelchair-using badass Brookner (who absolutely earns an ovation with a fed-up monologue that's designed to get one) and with Felix (Patrick Andrews), the lover Ned finds at the least perfect moment, that Cromer and Kramer beat as one in the most normal way.