Thursday, November 24, 2016

“The Normal Heart” rocks a powerful punch at ION.

Former Indiana Gov. Mike Pence ‘wrote on his website in a section on LGBT issues that government money from a program to help with HIV /AIDS should go to organizations “which provide assistance to those seeking to change their sexual behavior.” ‘i.e.: conversion therapy’.

“AIDS is a plague-numerically, statistically and by any definition known to modern public health-though no one in authority has the guts to call it one.” Larry Kramer.

Larry Kramer founded the Gay Men’s Health Crisis in 1981 with five friends. ‘It is still one of the worlds largest provider of services to those with HIV.’ And the work is never ending.

Kramer is also the author of “The Normal Heart” a semi autobiographical journal/journey through the horrors of the beginnings of one of the most dreaded and mysterious and sexually transmitted diseases. It attacks the immune system at random and was wide spread in Africa before it hit the states. It ultimately killed (and this was just in New York in the early 80’s) thousands (‘1,112 and counting’) of gay men before it was actually given column space in The New York Times.

“The Normal Heart” opened Off-Broadway at the Public Theatre in 1985 and ran for 249 performances. It was revived again in Los Angeles and London and again Off-Broadway in 2004. The Broadway premiere opened in 2011 for a limited 12 -week run and won a Tony for Best Revival of a Play in 2011. 

Call it insightful planning or B’shert (fated or preordained) by the founders of ION Theatre, Glenn Paris and Claudio Raygoza, to schedule his play in what some might call the most contentious and politically charged and ugly, as in homophobic, xenophobic, anti Semitic presidential campaign seasons on record.

One might also add that Kramer’s “The Normal Heart” is likewise politically charged and was, at the outset, contentious. Oft times the players, in their fierceness to bring attention to this plague, bit the hands that fed them. It wasn’t always pretty.

In their Mission Statement: “ion forges bold, uncompromising theatre that investigates the fiery, passionate, resilient nucleus of the human condition.” And so, if the shoe fits…

Founders and co-directors  Raygoza and Paris pull out all the stops in this riveting production. With their mission statement in tow they bring us an honest to goodness and raw production of how Kramer’s movement was formed. The personalities involved and the struggles each had to live with day after day to make their plight known to the public and to the medical profession were fraught with anger, aggression and infighting to say the least.

In case you missed the call or have never seen a production of  “The Norman Heart”, Ion Theatre in Hillcrest is presenting one of the most prickling and emotionally draining productions of Kramer’s play that, if you miss being there to see it you will kick yourself. 
Keep in mind that the theatre seats 49. “The Normal Heart” plays through Dec. 17th.

Heading the cast is founding executive director Claudio Raygoza as Ned Weeks, Kramer’s alter ego. Once again if you’ve never seen this man act, you are in for a treat. His passion isn’t just for the stage; he is Kramer incarnate. His Weeks is bold, defiant and critical where a little less criticism would be needed, especially when dealing with the wigs from whom he’s trying to curry favors.

“Some reporter called me 'the angriest gay man in the world' or some such. Well, it stuck, but I realized it was very useful.” Kramer.
Those around him and part of his organization that also needed to carry the torch were somewhat flummoxed by his outrageous demands and defiance. Notably Alexander Guzman who plays Felix Turner a closeted Style Writer for The New York Times. He will eventually become his Kramer's lover. Over time, Weeks harasses him to come out but he refuses.

In fact all of those working for the cause refuse to come out, afraid of their careers would be in jeopardy. And then there were those opposed to getting involved like Ned’s brother Ben Weeks, (a convincing Daren Scott). He was is a partner in a successful law firm but couldn’t bring it upon himself to grant the newly formed organization tax free status. Instead he would bring it to the partners. Suffice it to say there was no love lost between the brothers. Their relationship, strained at the seams, took some time to heal. But until Ben  accepted his brother’s homosexuality things looked bleak.

On the other hand, Dr. Emma Brooker (a marvelous Kim Strassburger) who was responsible for treating these men was one of the biggest advocates for money, vaccines and getting the word out there. She too felt the frustration and anger from the medical world when they refused to give her any government funding or to even look at her studies and the work she compiled over the years.   

Those in the organization included Bruce Niles (Joel Miller), who plays down Ned’s bad temper and, as president of the group, just about excludes him from any decision -making policies. Michael Lundy’s Mickey Marcus has his moment on stage, feeling his job in danger and his life ruined by all the indecision and confusion surrounding him, goes into a rage that rocks the house.     

Fine support also comes from Stewart Calhoun as Tommy Boatwright. Fred Hunting co directs and plays several characters, as does Glenn Paris. Between Scott, Miller, Guzman, Raygoza and Strassburger this has to be one of the boldest ion has presented to us.

Mary Summerday designed the costumes. Scenic, sound (haunting, deep and troubled) and projections are credited to Raygoza. A note about the projections: at the end of the play the names of those dead from AIDS are posted on the walls and character’s overlapping and piling on one another to a degree the remained me of both the Vietnam Wall and walking through the children’s memorial at Yad Vashem.  

If you had any doubts about how the media is manipulated keep your eyes focused on the struggles Ned Weeks aka Kramer had leading up to an acknowledgement of this disease in its early phases. And if you have any thoughts that it isn’t happening again then ask yourself if you knew what Mike Pence was up to when he was Gov. of Indiana?

And finally, just the thought of a Mike Pence, a heartbeat away from the presidency and a hate mongering Donald Trump as president is enough to make gays, African-Americans, Jews, Muslims and/or any other ethnic, non-white civilians live in fear.

Get your walking shoes on, but first see “The Normal Heart” at ion,

See you at the theatre

Dates: Through Dec. 23rd
Organization: Ion Theatre
Phone: 619-600-5020
Production Type: Drama
Where: 3704 6th Ave., San Diego, CA 92103
Ticket Prices: $45.00
Venue: Ion’s BLKBOX
Photo: Daren Scott

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