John Fisher, left, and Jeremy Cole appear in Theatre Rhino’s “The Normal Heart.” (Courtesy David Wilson)

‘Normal Heart’ a telling tale about 1981 fight against AIDS

Set more than 30 years ago during the early days of the AIDS crisis, “The Normal Heart” still has impact.

It’s only fitting that San Francisco’s Theatre Rhinoceros, self-described as the world’s oldest troupe dedicated to LGBT issues, is staging Larry Kramer’s drama about trauma and turmoil in New York City in 1981-84, when young, white gay men were dying in inordinate numbers of a scary and mysterious disease — and nobody was doing anything about it.

The play, based on Kramer’s real life (the writer-activist founded Gay Men’s Health Crisis and ACT UP) was an off-Broadway hit at New York’s Public Theater in 1985, a Tony Award winner in a 2011 revival, and a well-received HBO movie starring Mark Ruffalo as protagonist Ned Weeks in 2014.

Here, Theatre Rhino artistic director John Fisher, who also directed the show, plays Weeks (the Kramer character) in a not entirely convincing performance. The activist was notorious for being offensive, but Fisher’s Weeks feels low key; he doesn’t push hard, really get in people’s faces or raise his voice enough.

When, after months of trying to get a meeting with politicians in efforts to raise money to fight the little-understood and recognized epidemic, Weeks is told by the New York mayor’s assistant to reduce his hysteria, it doesn’t register.

But in more personal scenes, including encounters with his lover, lifestyle reporter Felix (a thoughtful Jeremy Cole) and attorney brother Ben (the nicely measured Robert Zelenka), Weeks is believable.

As Emma Brooker, the no-nonsense physician (a polio survivor in a wheelchair) handling most of the devastating cases and warning gay men that having sex may cause death, Leticia Duarte is realistically frustrated.

Meanwhile, Weeks’ fellow gay activists — city health worker Tim (Mickey Marcus), Southerner Tommy Boatwright (Morgan Lange) and closeted bank executive Bruce (Benoît Monin) — don’t wholly overcome how the script makes them symbols of warring political and social viewpoints rather than unique characters.

Interestingly, the show’s many statistics about the high number of people afflicted by the virus, and the low number of dollars spent to fight it, manage to be both compelling and detracting.

The set design includes walls and panels on which people have written names of AIDS patients who perished, as well as hard-to-ignore information about the minimal number of news stories published.

Meanwhile, video projections on a back wall feature reprints of some of those articles, minimizing the effect of Kramer’s complaints about lack of coverage.

Still, despite some inconsistencies, “The Normal Heart” remains a powerful document of a dramatic, not-so-long ago tragedy about an ongoing global crisis, with effects reverberating today.

REVIEW
The Normal Heart
Presented by Theatre Rhinoceros
Where: Gateway Theatre, 215 Jackson St., S.F.
When: 8 p.m. most Wednesdays-Fridays; 3 and 8 p.m. Saturdays; closes Nov. 25
Tickets: $20 to $40
Contact: www.brownpapertickets.com, www.therhino.orgAIDSBenoît MoninJeremy ColeJohn FisherLarry KramerLeticia DuarteNew YorkNormal HeartTheaterTheatre RhinocerosTim Garcia

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