Props, set design and production value were replaced by raw emotion and actors’ anguish in Glasgow Theatre Company’s production of “The Normal Heart.”
“The Normal Heart’s” regional premiere ran from Nov. 10 to Nov. 13 on Johnson City Community Theatre’s stage. The drama, which won three Tony Awards during its 2011 Broadway revival, fiercely addresses the HIV/AIDS epidemic that plagued New York City’s gay community in the 1980s.
The protagonist, Ned Weeks (played by Josh Cassels), struggles to establish an organization focused on raising awareness of the then unidentified disease killing off members of the city’s gay population. After convincing a few in his inner-circle to join the fight, Ned’s fiery personality becomes a double-edged sword. While he successfully spreads word of the crisis and puts the gay agenda into an unprecedented spotlight, he also severs crucial relationships with other organizers and former New York mayor Ed Koch, losing any chance he had at city funding.
Eventually, Ned and his band of activists make progress with independent funding and research, but lose many other friends and activists to the epidemic in the process—including Ned’s longtime partner Felix Turner, a then New York Times reporter. The heart-wrenching drama is based on a true story and largely autobiographical (the play was written by Larry Kramer, who Ned’s character represents) made waves in its original late-’80s production and did the same for Johnson City’s theatre community this weekend.
A production of “The Normal Heart” in Johnson City speaks volumes to national, and more specifically, regional progress surrounding the LGBTQ agenda. One could argue that five years ago, two men kissing on stage in a community theatre production would be desolate in Northeast Tennessee.
While the original production and its 2014 Ryan Murphy-directed film adaptation both received criticism for their provocative and raucous nature, Glasgow’s production dialed back on the provocateur and honed in on the tragic nature of the ignored crisis. In 2016’s age of social responsibility and civic engagement, it is hard to believe that an epidemic of this scale would be quarantined by New York City’s then “progressive” intelligence.
Joe Smith, director of Glasgow’s “The Normal Heart,” knew when and where the audience would be most vulnerable to the tragic nature of the play. The most out-standing moment in production value was a carton of milk hurled and splattered across the stage, but given the minimalistic nature of production value and set, the audience was captivated and even emotional at the protagonist’s own emotional brink.
Another standout moment was when Mickey Markus (played by Larry Bunton), a friend of Ned and volunteer working with the HIV/AIDS awareness cause, lost all faith in their efforts. He reached a mental and physical breaking point, and the almost four-minute monologue dragged audience members through a breadth of frustration and despair that only someone who had lost countless friends, or family, to a still unidentified malady could know.
As it is known, “The Normal Heart” addresses civil rights issues of the 1980s that are still in the forefront of the national discussion today. Following a notorious election cycle, a sense of social empowerment has been ignited across the country that was melancholically mirrored in this ever-so-timely production.