TFM Review: The Normal Heart by Alphonzo Alegrado
Photos by Beverly Esguerra
The Normal Heart is a semi-autobiographical play which centers on the outbreak of HIV-AIDS in early 1980s New York, and revolves around writer and gay activist Ned Weeks. Written by Larry Kramer, whom the character of Ned is based on, The Normal Heart has been staged on and Off-Broadway, and adapted into an award-winning HBO film. Director Bart Guingona stated that the reason The Necessary Theatre decided to stage the play was to bring attention to the rising HIV-AIDS crisis in Manila in 2015. But does the show succeed in creating awareness of HIV?
The show begins in the office of polio survivor Dr Emma Brookner (Roselyn Perez), the physical most experienced with the strange new disease that only seems to affect gay men. Ned enters her office, and begins a physical examination by Dr Brookner, all while she explains other aspects of the disease to him. Later on, Ned visits his lawyer brother Ben (Richard Cunanan), asking him to fund his newly created crisis organization. It is evident that Ben does not wish to actively support his brother, due to his lacking comprehension of Ned’s sexuality. Relentless in his efforts, Ned pursues the development of the organization with the aid of his friends: Tommy Boatwright (Red Concepcion), Mickey Marcus (Nor Domingo), and Bruce Niles (TJ Trinidad). Months pass and tensions rise, as well as the number of AIDS victims. Due to the confusion surrounding AIDS, and the underlying bias towards homosexuality, the mayor constantly delays meeting with the group, and major publications remain silent, refusing extensive coverage on the issue. Amidst all this, Ned reaches out to a gay New York Times writer named Felix, in hopes of getting him to write about the crisis. Felix is unable to help Ned, stating that no one is willing to cover such a story; despite this, the two begin a romantic relationship.
The play trudges along, taking place over the next two years since the beginning of the show’s events. When it comes to repartee, The Normal Heart is bursting at the seams. Having said this, the show does have it’s fair share of sullen and somber moments. Larry Kramer’s script is brilliant, well-balanced, and would surely be a delight for any actor to perform. Despite having to deliver all of the bad news, Roselyn Perez’s Dr. Brookner is an endearing character, equally matched by her ferocity in times of despondency. Red Concepcion’s portrayal of Tommy was excellent, despite the few times his accent would slip. Richard Cunanan is superb, and his portrayal of Ben Weeks is effortless. Of all the evening’s performances, Topper Fabregas topped them all, stealing the show in every single scene he was in. His Felix was charming, affectionate, and ultimately, disheartening. I’d often heard of Fabregas’ ability as an actor, and I definitely wasn’t disappointed.
The Normal Heart’s material is undoubtedly fantastic. But a fantastic script cannot come to its full potential if the actors fail to deliver. Aside from the aforementioned actors, the rest of the cast fails to provoke the emotional heft that is expected from and required by such a piece. Unfortunately, the same cannot be said for Director Bart Guingona’s performance. Too much effort was put into his accent, and it seemed as if he was trying too hard to keep it together, ultimately flubbing his lines frequently. And since he is the lead, it does put a damper on the show’s momentum. It’s truly a shame, because his direction was superb. The set changes were seamlessly done, and the minimalistic staging set the scenes well, without detracting from the actors performances.
The Normal Heart may be about AIDS, and creating awareness for it, but it’s just as much a story about the prevalence of prejudice towards homosexuals. The HIV-AIDS crisis in present day Manila can be compared to New York in the 1980s, and the same thing can be said about homophobia. The messages behind the show are of love, acceptance, and responsibility, and the intentions behind the company’s decision to stage the show are of good intent. However, an important message and valiant efforts do not make up for not being able to fully deliver on a story as compelling as The Normal Heart.
In the end, it is a moving show. It is an important show; because despite the advancements made by the rest of the world, our country still falls behind, especially when it comes to HIV awareness. The theater is a magical place, because for a few hours, you step into the life of the characters being portrayed. In The Normal Heart, we delve deeply into the hardships that these characters (all based on real individuals) face, and when we leave the theater, we re-enter the world with a new perspective, influenced by what we have just experienced. If the show is improved upon in the few areas where it falls short, The Normal Heart has the power to spur true change.
Have you seen the show? What did you think?