"What are you angry about?" This is a question that Larry Kramer, original AIDS activist and playwright, often asks — even now, in his 77th year. And if you're not angry about AIDS, maybe you will be after you see Kramer's The Normal Heart at Ensemble Theatre.
In many ways, this is an awkward play. It features scattered polemical diatribes, didactic explanations of the disease, and self-justifying rants by Kramer's avatar, Ned Weeks.
But it's all rescued by Kramer's insightful, piercingly personal details, as gay men struggle at the very beginning of the AIDS onslaught. And this battle is rendered with shattering believability by a strong Ensemble cast under the unerring direction of Sarah May.
The play begins in 1981, when the often volatile Ned is a mildly successful writer in his mid-forties. Some of his gay friends are coming down with a mysterious illness that is proving to be brutally and quickly fatal.
But even as the deaths mount, there is little concern in the gay community, which continues its free-love bathhouse indulgences. And that attitude is matched by silence in the media.
Gradually, Ned becomes more enraged, and begins organizing his friends, mailing leaflets and staging rallies to raise awareness of the disease that is stalking his community.
Along the way, Kramer skillfully weaves in multiple stories. One involves Ned's lawyer brother Ben (a nicely nuanced Jeffrey Grover), who loves Ned but has problems with his lifestyle. Another touches on the fiery and no-nonsense doctor, Emma Brookner, a paraplegic physician committed to treating AIDS patients.
The most telling relationship is Ned's romance with Felix Turner (an exceptionally affecting Scott Esposito), the editor of the Style section of the New York Times. Sartorial and temperamental opposites, Ned and Felix become an item. But their future becomes clouded when Felix finds a purple spot on his foot.
In the role of Ned/Larry, Brian Zoldessy is a rumpled, slouching, mumbling tour de force. Calm and understanding at times, his Ned flares whenever he detects deceit or unfairness.
This tendency eventually exhausts his friends and fellow activists, who chafe under Ned's uncompromising leadership. The combination of Ned's single-mindedness and society's callous disregard erupt in several small heartbreaking soliloquies.
Mickey is a government worker who is volunteering for Ned's group, but he burns out in a deeply felt monologue delivered with raw honesty by Dan Kilbane.
The president of the protest organization, Bruce Niles (David Bugher), is the political flipside of Ned, deferential and closeted. But when Bruce loses his third partner to AIDS and describes his lover's horrific last hours, Burgher's searing intensity is devastating.
A vigor of a different kind is displayed by Derdriu Ring as Dr. Brookner. Her confrontation with a federal official over research funding for AIDS is scathing in its outrage.
Of course, you may ask why it is necessary to see all this anger now.
At the Republican National Convention in 1992, a suburban mom named Mary Fisher addressed the delegates about AIDS, which she had contracted from her husband. "I am one with the lonely gay man sheltering a flickering candle from the cold wind of his family's rejection."
Can you even imagine such a thought being expressed by a speaker for today's Republican Party? The ignorance and hostility that haunted AIDS in the '80s may be muted. But to paraphrase Bertolt Brecht, "the bitch that bore them is in heat again."
Get angry. Get to Ensemble Theatre.