Regional Reviews: San Diego
Also see David's review of The Sound of Music
Claudio Raygoza, founder and Executive Artistic Director of Ion Theatre, stars as gay activist, Ned Weeks, inspired by Kramer. He forms an HIV advocacy group in New York City in response to the deaths of many of his friends and because few are truly acknowledging the epidemic killing gay Americans. Other members of the group, including Mickey Marcus (Michael Lundy), Tommy Boatwright (Stewart Calhoun), and president Bruce Niles (Joel Miller), are not prepared for Ned's overwhelming passion and almost endless anger.
Directors Raygoza and Ion's founding Producing Artistic Director Glenn Paris (featured in several small roles) create a 1980s atmosphere without an exaggerated feeling. From Raygoza's song choices to the use of props like retro magazines, theatregoers are fully immersed from the very beginning. Adding surreal imagery are Raygoza's scenery and Kevin Kornburger's lighting. Their visuals can be dreamlike and otherworldly, which is an interesting contrast to the realistic prose.
Playwright and gay activist Kramer wants audience members to be furious about the struggles the central characters endure. Some of the events that Ned and his associates live through are traumatizing and soul crushing. Through Ned, Kramer gets to express thoughts and dialogue that are often brutally honest and truthful. Raygoza leads the night with energetic zeal. Ned is the sort of man whose frequent outbursts are understandable and usually justified. He has several sensitive moments with his first real lover, Felix Turner (Alexander Guzman). Audience members get to see a gentler side to the advocate because of the bittersweet rapport between Raygoza and Guzman.
Besides Ned and Felix, there are numerous characters who are given a fair amount of development when they appear. Every cast member feels believable whenever they are on the Elaine Lipinsky Stage. Calhoun has hilarious timing, while Lundy and Miller each have an individual monologue that adds heartbreaking depth to their roles. Ion's Associate Artistic Director Kim Strassburger and Daren Scott each play straight people who are very important to Ned. Scott depicts Ned's brother Ben, while Strassburger portrays a physician and polio survivor, Emma Brookner. Both are fascinating to watch, and bring a lot of intelligence to roles that could have been far less complex with weaker writing and acting.
Benefiting the tragic tale is dry comic relief in the narrative. Almost all of the characters manage to have a sense of humor in spite of the sad events happening around them. Occasional levity does help keep the interpretation from being too bleak. However, the witty remarks never get in the way of numerous impassioned scenes. Besides being a furious night, The Normal Heart is also an unsappy tearjerker that doesn't shy away from sorrowful situations. Since the characters are given plenty of earned empathy, their pain can be difficult to watch.
Modern viewers can occasionally feel like outsiders. Even though AIDS continues to exist, much has changed in the world since Kramer's show was written. Yet the audience can still be invested because of the raw performances and the deep emotions that are expressed in this production. The Normal Heart should be seen by anyone who wants to further understand the impact AIDS has had on the gay community and their struggles to get it recognized. Raygoza and Paris retain the brave spirit of Kramer's important achievement. The evening is an enlightening time capsule that is the polar opposite of a dry history lesson.
Ion Theatre Company presents The Normal Heart through December 17, 2016. Performs through Sundays at 3704 6th Avenue. Tickets start at $14.00 and be purchased online at www.iontheatre.com or by phone at 1-619-600-5020.