Tim Leininger, Contributing Critic - Connecticut
Manchester, CT - Little Theatre of Manchester has assembled together a production of Larry Kramer’s “The Normal Heart” that is exceptional community theater, giving a solid production that reminds us of the dangers of ignoring people groups that are in severe and dangerous situations.
Set in the early 1980s, “The Normal Heart” tells the story of Ned Weeks (Shawn Procuniar), a gay writer living in New York City, whose friends start dying from a mysterious new disease, later to be determined as AIDS.
It is a passionate piece about a man who wants to save as many lives as he can, but no one wants to listen to him or stand by his side to defend his position. It’s the early ‘80s and there is still a vivid fear of assault or even murdered for being homosexual, even in New York City.
The government does nothing to assist in finding a cause or bringing an awareness to the disease and the press refuses to write any stories after hundreds of people in the country have died. Ned and a group of friends decide to organize and attempt to bring awareness to as many people — particularly gay men — as possible, including City Hall and Mayor Ed Koch.
Problems arise as Weeks consults with Dr. Emma Bruckner (Lori Lee), who hypothesizes that the disease may transfer through sexual contact.
Kramer isn’t afraid to not only cast blame on the government and the press for not making an effort to deal with the growing epidemic. He also uses Weeks to call out members of the gay community for not taking seriously warnings that AIDS may be transferable sexually and continuing to live their lives in a way that becomes reckless.
Debi Freund — who took over directing duties after Artistic Director Michael Forgetta died on May 4 — and the cast have shown their passion for the material. They drive home the horrific statistics of how AIDS begins to spread and how no one seems to care or make any valiant effort to do anything about it.
Procuniar, in particular, throws himself into the role of Weeks, passionately orating to people whatever facts Weeks has to give. Procuniar carries the play with Weeks’ love for his friends and his desperate fear of losing them all.
His scenes with James DeMarco — who plays Bruce Niles, a closeted gay man who is president of their organization and prefers a more tempered approach in dealing with the crisis — are the best scenes of the play. They are both believably angry and aggressive with each other, even though they fight for the same cause, just from different philosophical points of view.
The one real problem with the production is the pacing. The script’s listed run time is two hours — though the New York Times lists the Broadway production from 2011 as 2.5 hours. This production runs almost three hours. The inflated run time is mostly due to the scene changes which run extra long due to a series of projections that are shown between each scene change giving statistics on the AIDS crisis from 1981 to 2017.
Important though the information is, it breaks the pacing of the play and caused me to get a little stir crazy during the scene changes. Listing the information within the program would have been easier; it would have cut the run time down, and would have also given the opportunity to have the information at the audience’s fingertips to bring home with them to keep if they wanted.
This is one of Little Theatre’s best productions; definitely their best since “August: Osage County” several years back. It is a show that Freund’s cast and creative team have dedicated themselves with apparent heart and pride. You may have to shift around in your seat a bit over the run time, but it is worth it.
The Normal Heart
Theater: Little Theatre of Manchester
Location: 177 Hartford Road, Manchester
Production: Written by Larry Kramer; directed by Michael Forgetta and Debi Freund; Stage Manager: Dan Pear; Set and Lighting Design by Dan Checovetes; Sound Design by Ron Schallack.
Show times: Evening: Friday and Saturday 8 p.m. Matinee: 2 p.m.
Tickets: $19 to $25. Available online at www.cheneyhall.org, by phone at 860-647-9824, or at the box office.