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Review: Richmond Triangle Players’ “The Normal Heart” 

A classic activist drama about the AIDS crisis features a standout cast.

click to enlarge Stevie Rice as Felix Turner and Dawn A. Westbrook as Dr. Emma Brookner are part of the "standout" cast of RTP's "The Normal Heart."

Stevie Rice as Felix Turner and Dawn A. Westbrook as Dr. Emma Brookner are part of the "standout" cast of RTP's "The Normal Heart."

In 1981 New York, writer Ned Weeks begins to notice a disturbing trend: One-by-one, in rapid succession, his friends are getting sick and dying. His doctor, who has treated more than a few of these men, says she can't locate the cause. She urges Weeks to use his voice to bring awareness to what is quickly shaping up to be some kind of a modern plague. Worst of all, this mysterious disease seems limited, at first, to the gay community.

"The Normal Heart" tells the true story of playwright Larry Kramer and the men with whom he founded the Gay Men's Health Crisis at the beginning of the AIDS epidemic in New York. Together, they lobbied for public recognition and aid to those suffering and dying from what was, at the time, an unknown disease.

With characters who work in the media, law and government, this drama criticizes institutional efforts to sidestep and ignore the epidemic while remaining a touchingly human story, grounded in characters' individual choices and motivations. The storytelling is didactic, the messages heavy-handed, but none of that feels out of place in a story about characters whose primary objective is communicating their plight to the world.

The Richmond Triangle Players' production of "The Normal Heart," currently running at the Robert B. Moss Theatre through May 12, is a heartfelt and heartbreaking retelling of this story. Director George Boyd handles onstage tension and romance with nuance and careful pacing, allowing space for his talented actors to take their time with dramatic moments, letting them build believably without losing momentum. The play never feels slow.

This is a standout cast, all-around. Jim Morgan’s passion and intensity is palpable in his performance as commitment-phobic Ned Weeks, whose character arc includes allowing himself to open up fully to a lover, Felix Turner, played Southern and sweet by Stevie Rice. Dawn A. Westbrook commands the stage from her wheelchair as Dr. Emma Brookner, the physician who encourages Weeks to adopt this cause. Dan Cimo is a scene stealer as Tommy Boatwright, a young man who joins the cause to be closer to Ned, but who proves invaluable for his well-timed wit and ability to be the voice of reason in a disagreement.

Frank Foster’s scenic design effectively evokes the early 80s and, thanks to a versatile black-and-white tile motif, color-coordinated furniture, and various levels onstage, it transforms from public space -- hospital waiting room, law office and newspaper headquarters – to Ned and Felix’s home with ease. Three large screens onstage serve to further establish setting while transitioning between scenes and moving the audience forward in time.

Joel Furtick's makeup design is realistic and adds to the drama, and Sheila Russ' costumes go a long way toward establishing the time period. Lucian Restivo’s sound design worked toward this end, too, using popular ’80s songs to fill the space between scenes, but sometimes this was a bit distracting or out of step with the drama. Silence might even have served the story better.

“The Normal Heart” chronicles the history of a marginalized people fighting for their lives, and Richmond Triangle Players’ production emphasizes the continued significance of that fight. Audiences should head out to see this show for the acting and because this story is important. However, you may want to bring tissues and a shoulder to cry on for this one.

Richmond Triangle Players’ “The Normal Heart” runs from through May 12 at the Robert B. Moss Theatre. Tickets cost $10 - $28. rtriangle.org.

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