Whether it is through moments of unapologetic laughter or solemn silence, Larry Kramer's "The Normal heart" is nothing short of an emotional experience that leaves the most distinct and memorable of impressions. John McKenzie directs this riveting portrayal of the 1980's play about the early years of the AIDS epidemic, an ordeal that was largely ignored for many reasons. Though the story follows Ned Weeks, a loud, confrontational, homosexual, New Yorker struggling through his attempts to bring awareness to the epidemic, the play is also a looking glass into an important time in human history. While the performance grapples with the effects of the disease at its most concrete, medical forms, it also speaks volumes about activism and the power and fragility of standing up for what is "right". There is a haunting discomfort at the show's end as nothing feels like it has been resolved, and with 35 million people worldwide currently living with HIV/AIDS, the story defiantly points our awareness towards something much bigger than its own presence.
The Palace Theatre's Procunier Hall, with its limited seating and private space, creates a very intimate effect that is crucial to the success of the piece. When in the front row, the audience is drawn into the characters' lives at an intimacy level that rivals that of the actors; however, during moments of unrest or uneasiness, the venue leaves no escape from the show's raw emotion. There is nowhere to hide in an environment that teeters on the edge of fringe theatre, and it leaves an audience at the mercy to whatever epiphanies they might have while watching. The space certainly lends a hand to Kyle Stewart's portrayal of Ned Weeks who, though skilled in the delivery of his lines, shines most in moments in which his body language and mannerisms do the acting. From the first time he steps on stage, Stewart's facial expressions and physical presence speak louder than anything said out loud. Through ticks, physical separation from the other actors on stage, and a consistently never faltering plethora of movements in the background, Ned Weeks becomes a soul burning so hot with defiance and passion that his body can hardly shade the light. The audience's eyes are glued to Stewart at all times, ear drums ringing with the deafening scream of rage that tears its way through his moments of silence. It works exceptionally well then that his co-star Josh Taylor, playing Ned's dying lover Felix Turner, shares this exceptional skill. The two of them take up a presence on the stage that is unmatched to the lines they are delivering; an entire performance in which they both simply sit in the room and communicate through looking at one another would be equally as loud, and there are few actors that could be said for. At the root of their most powerful scenes, there is a contrast between the soft and the harsh — an ever present give and take of white hot rage and drawn out stillness. As Stewart's mannerisms shine rhythmically, Taylor's flicker with finesse and subtlety. The pair of them evoke an immersion into the world of the calmingly tender, the startlingly sexy, and the sporadically desperate. A genuine chemistry is apparent, and their back and forth of reactions and responses owns the space at all times. The same could be said for Ned's interactions with Bruce Niles, played by Paul Vallerand; from screaming at the top of their lungs to drowning in a world without the oxygen of reason, their scenes together massively reinforce the beauty of physical theatre and vocal theatre harmonizing effortlessly.
In patches throughout the show, the musical accompaniment seems to be more of a distraction than an enhancement to the experience. Though each of the songs during the transitions are indicative of the 80's time period, often times the up-beat tone of a song takes away from the emotional seriousness of the scene preceding it. The same could be said about the lighting, designed by Sid Wilson. In some scenes the lighting is helpful to the acting, as was the case with the funding meeting involving Dr. Emma Brookner (played by Vanessa Woodford). However, in most scenes it ends up being more harmful; personal instances were often accompanied by an entirely lit up stage, which took away from the performance. One particularly bothersome moment involving the lights involves the play's final scene; the two characters speaking could be lit up on their own, but instead they sit under an entirely lit surrounding, turning a touching scene into an awkward one as a body still on stage is never blacked out. That being said, the minimalistic art work of the set adds strength where the lighting lacks. The backdrop is clinical and concrete, and the only splashes of colour are red splatters upon white canvases near the back. Not only does this air of simplicity allow the actors to perform without having the set swallow them, but as they move, the play and the shadows against the white walls is breathtaking.
All in all, McKenzie took a risk with a script of such heavily weighted social issues and came out successful. A combination of smaller details such as the background sound of the beating heart that came and left as it pleased throughout the show, and larger ones such as the slideshows at each intermission and the show's end with AID's victims on them, came together not to make the audience feel a sense of finality, but to remind us that the fight is far from over. It is a story about love, about anger, and about the selfish and selfless choices humanity is left to choose from every single day. Part of a W.H. Auden poem was placed in a slide right before the first scene, and as the "Normal Heart's" name sake, it very much encompasses the nature of the play, and of Ned Weeks.
"What mad Nijinsky wrote
Is true of the normal heart;
For the error bred in the bone
Of each woman and each man
Craves what it cannot have,
Not universal love
But to be loved alone."
"The Normal Heart" is presented in conjunction with the occurrence of World AIDS day and the Regional HIV/AIDS Connection organization in London . The show will continue to play from November 20th- December 1st at 8pm, at the Palace Theatre (710 Dundas Street, East, London, ON, N5W 2Z4).