Every day, over 20 people are diagnosed with HIV in the Philippines. The numbers are alarming, yet it’s not being talked about. It’s frighteningly reminiscent of thirty years past where the same disease was being swept under the rug.
“Manila 2015 is a lot like New York 1981,” says director and lead actor Bart Guingona. This is not a flattering comparison. We are where New York was during the start of the AIDS crisis where people are dying but not enough people care. This is one of the reasons The Necessary Theater decided to stage Larry Kramer’s “The Normal Heart” here and now, perhaps hoping that the play, in some way, will do what it did for New York back in 1985.
It’s the early eighties and a disease is spreading. Neither the government nor the community primarily affected by this illness is taking it seriously. Ned Weeks (Mr. Guingona) cannot abide by this passivity as more of his friends are being decimated by the virus. He clamors to be heard, for the gay community and the government alike to take action. His message is not easy to swallow, especially when he is told by Dr. Emma Brookner (Roselyn Perez) that the disease is likely sexually transmitted.
He starts a crisis organization, coming to his straight older brother, Ben (excellently played by Richard Cunanan) for aid. There is resistance there, perhaps a little indifference, certainly embarrassment. It’s an all-too-real dynamic where family members love but do not accept. Not to be deterred, Ned goes ahead with his organization. Enlisting his friends for help, they opt to elect the charismatic, cautious, and closeted Bruce Niles (TJ Trinidad) opposing Ned’s confrontational approach.
Ned is frustrated with the lack of urgency, even within his own organization. He meets with a gay New York Times writer, Felix Turner (Topper Fabregas) hoping to get him to write about this new health crisis. Felix, though uncooperative to Ned’s cause, is attracted by him.
The disease continues to spread, turning into an epidemic. Still, those who have the power and money to help turn a blind eye. The situation becomes more desperate, and the devastation hitting closer to home Bruce’s three partners have died. Felix, too, is diagnosed with the disease. Any compassion they are shown are nowhere near enough. The show ends in tragedy, and parts with a chilling message that plainly states how bad the reality is, and how worse it could get if we don’t do anything about it.
Only acting heavyweights can deliver such material with necessary depth and gravitas. This is what Mr. Guingona and The Necessary Theater has achieved. Red Concepcion and Jef Flores were terrific in their various roles. Nor Domingo as Mickey Marcus, and Roselyn Perez, performed their dramatic moments with bone-chilling intensity that rendered the audience speechless. TJ Trinidad, in his first foray into theater, is a subtle actor which appropriately served Bruce’s even-tempered manner. The production’s stand-out is Topper Fabregas, who is superb and simply gut-wrenching in his role.
Polemical though it may be, The Normal Heart has humor and, well, heart. It is a piercing and provocative story with characters written and portrayed as real men who lived–and died–for a cause. This play will make you sad, yes, but it should also make you angry. It happened in New York, yet it’s happening in Manila thirty years later. Despite the medical advances and societal growth the world has experienced, it seems like we’re still doomed to learn this lesson the hard way unless we take urgent steps in regards to HIV awareness.
THE NORMAL HEART
WRITTEN by Larry Kramer; DIRECTED by Bart Guingona; STARRING Bart Guingona, Topper Fabregas, Roselyn Perez, TJ Trinidad, Richard Cunanan, Nor Domingo, Red Concepcion and Jef Flores. This show runs until July 5 at the Carlos P. Romulo Auditorium, RCBC Plaza, Makati.