Theatre Rhinoceros’ ‘The Normal Heart’ is heartbreaking but flatlines

Theatre Rhinoceros/Courtesy

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The Gateway Theatre (formerly the Eureka Theatre) in San Francisco is not a large theater. Originally a movie theater, the lack of gridspace and backstage areas may pose difficulties for theater companies but oftentimes encourages innovation and experimentation. Currently playing at the Gateway, “The Normal Heart,” directed by and starring UC Berkeley alumnus John Fisher, showcases neither.

The tragic play is presented by Theatre Rhinoceros, “The Longest-Running Queer Theatre in the World,” and rightly so. “The Normal Heart” is at its core a story of gay identity — what it means to be identify, come out and speak up as gay a man. Originally written by LGBTQ+ rights activist Larry Kramer, the play is the largely autobiographical story of a group of gay men in New York City in the early 1980s, during the birth of the AIDS/HIV crisis. The plot centers on Ned Weeks (John Fisher), a pseudonym for Kramer, an abrasive and loud-mouthed activist who, upon founding the Gay Men’s Health Crisis (GMHC), struggles to spread news and reduce the stigma of the deadly disease striking the gay community.

Black, handwritten statistics line the white walls of the simple set, listing the current AIDS/HIV death toll (1,216,917) as well as statistics on the scarcity of reporting during the crisis. Two of the walls were originally blank, but now, even on opening night, they list at least 50 names handwritten by audience members before the show. An announcement by a member of the production team every night welcomes viewers to write the names of those they have known who are suffering from or have died of AIDS/HIV.

It therefore appears, upon entering the theater, that this play will be an interactive one — historical, but contextualized for a modern audience. This is not the case. Even while characters onstage discuss the dire need for intersectional support in their community, having an almost entirely white cast neglects this important theme. With shows such as Hamilton proving that theater is a space that does not have to maintain historical racial accuracy in casting, it has instead become an essential space for discussion of racial identity in different contexts. For a show that preaches diversity, to not practice it negates this concept entirely.

The show itself is mediocre; Fisher’s performance fails to carry the production the way it was written to. His portrayal of Weeks is just that — weak. Rarely leaving the stage, Fisher devolves into a caricature, oftentimes ruining heartbreaking moments with his abrasive and overt overacting. As a director, he also falls flat, with many moments throughout the production feeling incredibly historically invalid.

Nothing is more devastatingly distracting than the transitions between scenes. Scored only by sparse, male, off-pitch vocals, at times the production feels more like an SNL sketch than professional theater. In one such transition, the actors move set pieces while singing the song “Under Pressure” by Queen. The iconic song is jarring in this atmosphere, completely jerking the audience out of the production.

The scenic design too is lacking. Though the white paneled walls create a minimalist feel, they do nothing to hide the actors and prop racks backstage. The set looks unintentionally jumbled and haphazard. If this was a scenic decision, it was a poor one — watching actors grabbing props and making costume changes while action is taking place onstage is distracting and removes the illusion of reality completely.


Theatre Rhinoceros/Courtesy

The show’s only redeemability comes from performances, albeit pulled out at the last minute. To no fault of the cast, “The Normal Heart” follows a strange emotional arc. The first act is mundane and slow, and the second act races to a conclusion, with heart-wrenching monologue after monologue.

Benoît Monin gives a strong performance as Bruce Niles, the president of the GMHC, who, after having three partners die from AIDS, falls apart, worrying he is the cause. One of the youngest actors in the production, Tim Garcia, displays incredible emotional variability as Mickey Marcus, a mentally unstable writer for the Health Department who grapples with the lack of information about the disease. The best performance comes from Jeremy Cole, whose portrayal of Weeks’ partner Felix Turner is at times difficult to watch as he slowly loses his humanity to AIDS. The juxtaposition of his confident, flirtatious self and his slowly decaying body is truly heartbreaking.

“The Normal Heart” is an incredibly important and devastating tale of loss, identity and community. Kramer’s story is one that demands to be told; to see it performed 30 years after its publication speaks to the relevance of his struggle, even today. But in the end, Theatre Rhinoceros’ low production quality and unspectacular directing cause the play to monotonously drag along, sadly minimizing the impact of the play on the audience and failing to do Kramer justice.

“The Normal Heart” is playing Nov. 3-25 at the Gateway Theatre.

Contact Rebecca Gerny at [email protected].