Almost 30 years after its debut, "The Normal Heart" still has the power to rip our guts out.
Playwright Larry Kramer's best-known work is half-play, half-rallying cry. There's no distance between the personal and the political in this watershed AIDS drama. In George C. Wolfe's incendiary revival of the play, now making its West Coast premiere at San Francisco's American Conservatory Theater, Kramer's aching "Heart" beats fiercely once more.
While the political muscle of the work is legendary, what's revelatory about this Tony-winning production is the emotional volatility. Re-created by director Leah C. Gardiner, "The Normal Heart" unleashes a ferocious wave of feelings, from outrage to sorrow, that threaten to engulf the viewer.
Certainly, it's not an easy play to watch. Wolfe envisioned the piece as a memorial to the fallen. The set summons up the painful history on display through a collage of video, newspaper headlines and the growing roster of the dead as the nation struggles to come to terms with the epidemic.
When Kramer first began writing, no one knew what AIDS was, much less how to fight it. The story starts in the summer of 1981, when there were only 41 known fatalities and no one suspected that the virus would one day claim almost 35 million lives. Back then, only Kramer was prescient enough to know that there was no time for denial, inertia or political compromise.
Not only must activist Ned Weeks (a sensitive turn by Patrick Breen) fight the medical establishment, the political machine and the media mill, but he must also battle his peers in the gay community, many of whom are reluctant to sacrifice their hard-won sexual freedom at any cost.
Breen, who appeared in the Broadway incarnation in a supporting role, ignites the stage as Ned, a man driven by rage and cursed by the unshakable certainly that he is the only one who can see that the world is about to fall apart. The actor tempers Ned's righteousness with his sense of empathy. He rants and raves so hard because he feels so much. Activism is his only salvation.
While Kramer's work is still deeply polemic and several of the actors here have not found a way to mellow the didactic elements in the text, the playwright's insights into human nature are keen indeed. He captures the paralysis that a climate of fear can cause. The play can be seen as a study in denial, an example of how mankind buries its head in the sand when confronted with inconvenient truths of all kinds.
To be sure, Ned is a complicated hero. He's a bully and a hothead who alienates everyone he meets, but he also is quite right about the cost of doing nothing in the face of crisis.
Sadly, his prophetic gifts don't win him a reprieve from fate. The audience shares his wistfulness as we watch Ned fall madly in love with Felix, a gentle-hearted fashion writer (a witty Matt McGrath).
The love story is tinged with sadness because you can sense that Ned will lose his lover to the disease he has devoted his life to fighting. The fact that the play ends with a wedding doesn't make their romance any less tragic.
Ned's howl of pain is almost matched in intensity by Emma (Jordan Baker), a doctor desperately trying to alert the medical establishment to the coming plague. Baker may be too strident for Emma at the beginning of the play, but she's riveting in the character's climactic speech.
Nick Mennell is touching as Bruce, a former Green Beret who isn't comfortable being politically radical even after enduring intolerable indignities. Sean Dugan lends sass and grace to Tommy, an earnest young man who comes of age in the middle of the epidemic.
The strength of this landmark drama is how much it has to say not just about a dark moment in history, but about the forces that conspire to keep people silent in the face of anguish. Kramer has written a parable about the fight that echoes as loudly today as ever.
'the NORMAL HEART'
By Larry Kramer
Through: Oct. 7
Where: American Conservatory Theater, 415 Geary St., San Francisco
Running time: 2 hours, 30 minutes (one intermission)
Tickets: $20-$95, 415-749-2228, www.act-sf.org