Courtesy photo"The Normal Heart" -- co-presented by Arena Stage and American Conservatory Theater

ACT's 'Normal Heart' packs a punch

If you lived in San Francisco (or New York) in the 1980s, Larry Kramer’s landmark 1985 play “The Normal Heart,” about the beginning of the AIDS epidemic in New York, will likely bring back the agony of that desperate decade.

You’ll recall how President Ronald Reagan ignored the impending disaster and  activists like Kramer (and the main characters in his play) struggled to alert the establishment, mobilize the gay community, educate the country at large and, of course, raise funds for research and treatment.

All the while, gay men — and, soon enough, others — were dying.

These days AIDS patients are living with the disease, not necessarily dying from it. But “The Normal Heart” is both a history lesson and a cautionary tale.

The various clashes of personality and of deep-seated beliefs that Kramer explores — within the activist community and within the gay community itself, not to mention between concerned, committed citizens and a criminally noncommittal government — feel timeless and universal.

But that’s not to say “The Normal Heart” is a well-made play, or that this American Conservatory Theater-Arena Stage (Washington, D.C.) co-production, directed by Tony Award-winner George C. Wolfe, is particularly theatrically satisfying.

For one thing, in patterning the play’s central figure, Ned Weeks (Patrick Breen), after himself, Kramer has created a smart, prescient alarmist who is so relentlessly strident and abrasive that he quickly becomes tiresome.

Luckily, the playwright does create a doomed love affair for Ned that humanizes him. And the quarrels between Ned and his activist colleagues in the nonprofit he created — as well as between Ned and his lawyer brother (Bruce Altman) — are believable and at times quite engaging.

But the play is larded with so many didactic speeches from Ned, and from a concerned doctor (Jordan Baker), and with such an endless recitation of facts and figures, that what should be potent and incisive is instead mind-numbing.
It doesn’t help that the actors tend to rattle off their lines and shout a lot, very loudly, with an emotional range that for the most part veers from shrill to histrionic.

That said, a few quiet moments, like nonprofit president Bruce’s (Nick Mennell) description of taking his dying lover on a plane, resonate. And Kramer’s insight and compassion are undeniable; the emotional monologue that he gives activist Mickey (Michael Beresse) in Act 2 is heart-wrenching.

Wolfe keeps the action moving along at a brisk pace on David Rockwell’s minimalist, black-and-white set, and the play ultimately packs a punch in spite of itself.

Review

The Normal Heart
Co-presented by Arena Stage and American Conservatory Theater
Where: 415 Geary St., S.F.
When: 8 p.m. Tuesdays-Saturdays, 2 p.m. most Saturdays and Sundays; closes Oct. 7
Tickets: $20 to $95
Contact: (415) 749-2228, www.act-sf.org

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