Square, Righteous, Superior, Embarrassed

The Normal Heart spills milk at the Santa Fe Playhouse

By the time I reached grade school in the early '90s, the hysteria around the AIDS crisis had calmed. AZT had been approved by the FDA and diagnosis was no longer a death sentence. My generation didn't experience the intense not-knowing of the 1980s, which Larry Kramer's 1985 play The Normal Heart portrays in sharp detail. Kramer wrote the play from inside the panic, and it is full of questions, fear and, chillingly, many topics that still come up with frequency.

At the Santa Fe Playhouse, the cast of 11 men and one woman was clearly deeply invested in the production. While there were some stumbles that could be attributed to opening-night jitters or the weight of such a seminal piece, overall the cast handles the heavy material well under the direction of Santa Fe newcomer Duchess Dale. The Playhouse originally scheduled the production to coincide with national Pride Month (despite our president's refusal to acknowledge it and the Santa Fe HRA's decision to move our celebration to September to more readily include the college community).

It’s an unfortunate habit of anyone upset by an administration’s policies to casually toss off references to the Holocaust, and to call anyone you don’t like a Nazi, but the references by contemporary LGBTQ+ activists raise goosebumps: How else to communicate the severity of the current rounding-up and torturing of gay men in Chechnya? Or the absolutely patently insane claims from Chechen spokesman Alvi Karimov that the murders of gay men are not true because "there are no homosexuals in Chechnya. You cannot detain and persecute those who do not exist"?

In describing their friends’ appearances at their death, the men of The Normal Heart say the dead looked like they had been in Auschwitz. Doctors refuse to touch them, coroners refuse to come in the room; they are brought out the back doors of hospitals in garbage bags. Even after thousands of deaths, there was still no significant funding for AIDS research; meanwhile, the play repeatedly references the muscle thrown behind eight deaths attributed to Tylenol.

But still, drawing comparisons to the Holocaust are called melodramatic, insulting.

So, here we have made it more than 300 words and I’ve barely even mentioned this particular production. This is to be expected, I guess—it is such an intense and important subject, it’s easy and perhaps even necessary to lean heavily on the story and the information disseminated. I’m doing it here, and perhaps the cast at the Playhouse does it as well.

Especially in the first scene, lines were recited without much feeling, rattled off in proper succession, relying on the story being told rather than the investment behind the lines. But then suddenly—woah—Craig (a pale, sickly Mark Westberg) is brought in convulsing, held down on the table in Dr. Emma Brookner’s office. Soon, he is dead. OK, shit just got real.

To be fair, playwright Kramer doesn’t allow for much getting-to-know-you in this play. We’re quickly introduced to Ned Weeks, writer and activist, here played by Hania Stocker. Ned and his friends walk a tightrope of wanting to be recognized as special because they are gay, and wanting to be respected as regular people despite being gay. As the mysterious virus overtakes New York City, they form the Gay Men’s Health Crisis (GMHC), setting up hotlines, arranging fundraisers and sending mailings.

They are flanked by Dr. Brookner (Lorri Layle Oliver), a physician courageous enough to treat a disease whose cause she can’t identify, and by Ned’s brother Ben (Jeff Nell), a lawyer who lends his legal knowledge but only sometimes his public support. Ned becomes romantically involved with Felix Turner (Welde Carmichael), who—expectedly, but still upsettingly—develops an ominous purple spot on his foot.

All in all, this production reminded me of a circus tent. There were a few immense, remarkable moments from these skilled actors, but other stretches sagged between the bright spots. Overall, the effect is still an impressive production, but there are a few performances that stood out from the rest.

We would be remiss not to start out with Stocker’s portrayal of Ned. This casting choice was impeccable; Stocker as the activist is infuriated and infuriating, while simultaneously awkward and tender in his interactions with Felix. Ned is constantly bubbling beneath the surface. While other actors on this stage seem to be missing the visible background stories their characters require, Ned has it all. We can almost see the fizz of frustration under his skin.

Opposite Stocker is Carmichael’s Felix, a society writer for the New York Times who always gets what he wants and doesn’t view being gay as a hindrance. He’s smooth and funny and genuinely likeable, and his descent into illness is wrenchingly portrayed.

Another notable, if occasionally inconsistent, performance is Tommy Boatwright, here played by Tristan Van Cleave. Van Cleave’s program bio notes that he only started acting in 2015, and his freshness isn’t betrayed by his performance. He has a natural feeling onstage, if sometimes flippant. The youngest of the group of activists, speaking in an almost cartoony Southern lilt and shamelessly coming on to his colleagues, he serves both as comic relief and, as the play moves forward, a strong voice in the GMHC.

There was one monologue in this show that actually left my mouth hanging open, and it was from David McConnell as a flawless Mickey Marcus. Mickey is introduced to us, like Tommy, as comic relief—light in the heels and full of giggles, he was a strong advocate for promiscuity in the gay community. In the absence of rights or respect, he believed gay men should be able to do whatever they wanted in bars and bathhouses. Of course, this has backfired by 1984, and Mickey, who works by day with the New York City Department of Health and by night advocating for AIDS patients with the GMHC, reaches the end of his rope in the second act.

After answering a phone call about another “theory” of where AIDS was coming from, Mickey launches into a tirade: He’s sick of hearing theories, sick of communicating these theories, sick of feeling in the dark and alone and terrified. McConnell is practically foaming at the mouth by the time he dissolves into fear: “Do you think the president really wants this to happen?” he asks. “Do you think the CIA really has unleashed germ warfare to kill off all the queers Jerry Falwell doesn't want? Why should they help us? We're actually cooperating with them by dying!”

The vitriol spewed by Mickey here is all the more disarming coming from a person as affable as McConnell. Tommy moves to comfort him, offers to take him home, but Mickey doesn’t want to go home. There is no home. There is no safe place. “I’m just afraid,” Mickey says from Tommy’s arms. We have no words of comfort.

Each actor, as it were, delivers potent material. There are rending monologues and interactions that leave us slayed. But the single most heartbreaking moment of this play, perhaps, is also one of the most unexpected, and it comes from a bag of groceries.

Toward the end of the play, Felix’s body is failing, his face riddled with purple lesions. Ned has gone to the store to get food. Ned arrives home to find Felix curled on the floor in a blanket, eating marshmallows one by one, a box of Twinkies open on the coffee table. Ned urges Felix to have some dinner. Felix declines.

Stocker stands up in frustration. “You can't eat the food? Don't eat the food,” he says, the hurt palpable in his voice. “I don't care. You can't get up off the floor—fine, stay there. I don't care.”

He reaches into the brown grocery bag, pulling out the ingredients one by one, tossing them offstage in anger. Fish, lettuce, broccoli, bread, it all goes flying. And then he pulls out a carton of milk. He angrily opens it and upturns it, pouring it all over the stage. "Who would ever want any milk? You might get some calcium in your bones," he spits at Felix. He throws the carton on the floor.

Everything that milk is—care, love, nurturing, effort, comfort—is for nothing. There is nothing left to do. The scene between Stocker and Carmichael was the highest emotional point in the play and the lowest emotional point for the audience, but it was exquisite to be brought to that place of hurt by actors so fine.

The Normal Heart

7:30 pm Thursdays-Saturdays June 8-24;
2 pm Sundays June 11-25. $15-$20.
The Santa Fe Playhouse, 142 E De Vargas St.,

988-4262, santafeplayhouse.org

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