The Normal Heart

The Normal Heart, 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday; $12-$20. A special performance at 8 p.m. on Sunday, July 21, will benefit the Sunburst Projects, an organization for children affected by AIDS; tickets are $25. Closet Door Theatre Company at the Ooley Theatre, 2007 28th Street; (916) 222-4932; Through August 3.
Rated 4.0

Closet Door Theatre Company, a fledgling group dedicated to productions with significance in the LGBTQI community, offers a very good version of the classic Larry Kramer play The Normal Heart. Set in the early days of the AIDS epidemic, the play chronicles the efforts of Ned Weeks—an avatar for Kramer himself—to alert New York’s gay community to the danger they faced and to organize a public-health response.

Ned is played by the outstanding Shawn B. O’Neal, who brings to life a complex character with all the flaws, neuroses, courage and heart necessary to suffer heartbreak and walk through it during a time of crisis. He is the fulcrum on which the play rests in virtually every scene; O’Neal does a fantastic job. He is supported in this by several strong performances, notably: Chris Bogard as Felix, Ned’s love interest; Wade Lucas as Ben, Ned’s brother; and Mark Brown as Bruce, a closeted gay executive who serves as Ned’s foil in every way. Additional supporting actors include Bonnie Antonini as an early AIDS medical specialist, Steve Buri and Matt Welch as gay activists, and Bill Gilbert and Russ Marsh in multiple roles.

Directed by Michael Hedges and Andrew Gibout, the play runs long—almost three hours—because of burdensome set changes. These are offset by the use of a slideshow of facts and information about the AIDS epidemic, but the show could benefit from a streamlined set with less complex pieces that merely evoke a change of scene rather than make one.

The power of The Normal Heart is not merely historical. It is a reminder that our prejudices and social biases can keep us from saving our own lives by delaying or denying the existence of very real threats. Larry Kramer was decried as a Cassandra in 1982; it’s worth pointing out that he—and Cassandra—were both right.