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Ensemble Theatre’s ‘The Normal Heart’ lacks power

Simple set design, timid performances cause season opener to fall flat

October 25, 2012

By Brittany Schilling

Ensemble Theatre’s promotional flier declares that its current production is “one of the theatre’s most powerful evenings ever,” but “The Normal Heart,” under Sarah May’s direction, is a far cry from that.

Written by Larry Kramer, the play focuses on the rise of the HIV-AIDS crisis in New York City during the early 1980s. The story is told through the eyes of Ned Weeks, a gay Jewish-American who uses fear tactics and aggressive public confrontations to crusade against the spread of this then-mysterious and fast-spreading disease. Ned’s advocacy group associates, some of them closeted and some unsure about their mission, are not as quick to jump into the media spotlight for fear of being shunned for their sexual orientation.

The production of this play incorporates three flat-screen TVs mounted above a small stage with a desk, a few chairs and a couple of small props. One screen shows the date, the second shows the location and the third depicts the number of AIDS cases reported. The date, location and number change with each scene and each new location incorporates a different configuration of the same basic furniture. After each scene, the lights dim, music plays, actors rush in to rearrange the stage and then rush out again.
Clearly, set designer Ian Hinz is going for simplicity so the focus is on the story, but nothing really takes you back into the 80s or places you in the nation’s hub of gay activity and the AIDS epidemic. Too much is left up to the audience’s imagination and the actors’ performances, which are inadequate at best.

Brian Zoldessy’s portrayal of Ned should have been the most compelling element in this production. It is not. In several pivotal scenes, he lacks the emotion and zest that you would expect from a character with so much passion for life and a professional actor with so much stage experience. The deathbed scene with Ned and his significant other should have been one of the play’s most powerful moments, but it falls flat. Scott Esposito, who plays Ned’s love interest, proves more effective than Zoldessy at bringing his character to life even while dying of AIDS. Derdriu Ring, as Dr. Brookner, a physician on the front line of the disease, steals the show. She is so forceful in the scene where she confronts a colleague about the sorry state of HIV research, that she nearly saves this production.

The story being presented in “The Normal Heart” is powerful, as advertised, and the subject of AIDS is still a relevant and noteworthy. But this Ensemble Theatre production is neither.