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  WINDY CITY TIMES

The Normal Heart
THEATER REVIEW
by Mary Shen Barnidge
2013-11-04

This article shared 2589 times since Mon Nov 4, 2013
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You know the play about the whistle-blower who discovers the source of a public health hazard, only to have his findings stifled by bureaucrats bent on protecting their own selfish interests? Sure you do—it's Henrik Ibsen's An Enemy of the People, written in 1882, the prototype for countless populist-oriented social-problem docudramas all the way up to 1985, when Larry Kramer sounded the alarm on a mysterious disease that killed surely and horribly, but was protected by a code of silence—ironically, enforced by its very victims.

Stories premised on medical mysteries tend to wane in significance once a means to their containment, if not cure, becomes viable. With the immediate threat diminished, the furor engendered thereby ( the centuries-old persecution of those afflicted with Hansen's Disease, for example ) is often viewed as quaint and curious by generations removed from its context. The aforementioned social issues associated with an illness may still provide fodder for discussion, but these also are inclined to fade quickly from memory. Observes the ambulatory-impaired Dr. Brookner, who contracted polio only weeks before a vaccine was proclaimed, "Nobody gets polio nowadays."

The terrifying early days of the AIDS epidemic weren't so very long ago, however, and Timeline Theatre's specialty is making history come alive. Kramer's script may be steeped in righteous anger, its initial scenes saturated in factual exposition and its later ones, in fire-breathing oratory, but under Nick Bowling's direction, a cast of A-list actors reels off casualty lists as conversationally as baseball stats and swaps huge mouthfuls of propagandistic rhetoric with the precision of prophets in classical tragedy. ( "If they'd let us get married to begin with, maybe none of this would have happened," a character remarks clairvoyantly. ) As our bunkered-down comrades gradually succumb to the stress of their own helplessness in the face of nature turned hostile, the truth of Ibsen's conclusion that "the strongest man is he who is most alone" becomes sadly apparent.

By the time a bereaved activist recounts how his husband's dying moments were spent surrounded by guards wearing hazmat suits, his lifeless body turned away by hospitals and refused burial, we are as outraged as our intrepid crusader ( played by David Cromer with unswerving conviction and touching vulnerability ), and when Mary Beth Fisher's even harder-boiled physician excoriates the government's medical board for their obstruction, the opening-night audience's spontaneous applause echoed the fury of her diatribe. What? Did you think that the war was over?


This article shared 2589 times since Mon Nov 4, 2013
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