The relationship between art and politics is often a subject for highly contentious argument. Some maintain that there is a world of difference between the two, while others see them as inextricably bound together.

Playwright Larry Kramer’s 1985 play “The Normal Heart,” the last offering of the season by Portland’s Mad Horse Theatre Company, is a work which lends itself to both sides of the debate. Its depiction of the early days of the AIDS crisis in New York City delves deeply into how activists tried to bring their concerns to those in positions to help get the word out about, and get help for, gay men who were mysteriously dying.

At the same time, the work provides an artful glimpse into the gay subculture in the early 1980s through presenting us with a handful of intelligent and likeable characters affected by the crisis in very personal ways.

The pivotal character in the play is Ned Weeks, a Yale grad of independent means who early on recognizes that the movement for gay liberation has suddenly become mortally threatened by this apparently sexually transmitted disease. His advocacy for political action comes together with a recommendation for changes to the gay lifestyle which only recently had started to come out of the closet.

Mad Horse veteran Peter Brown gives his Ned a substantial and most welcome touch of vulnerability not necessarily found in his character on the printed page. The stridency for which author/activist Kramer, whom Ned is based on, was known is also there but he doesn’t come across as being obnoxious so much as he does unbearably frustrated in his dealings with the authorities.

A huge part of Ned’s humanization, if you will, comes through his burgeoning romance with Felix, a New York Times writer who he initially hopes to enlist in publicizing the nascent epidemic. Their scenes together are touching for the revelations that each offers the other about the difficulties of being gay in a world defined by heterosexuality. As Felix, James Hoban earns sympathy even before it’s revealed that he has been infected.

Apart from the intimacy between Ned and Felix, some of the best scenes in the two-and-one-half-hour play are when Ned gets together with his fellow activists to debate and plan tactics as well as do the nitty-gritty work of getting the word out. Burke Brimmer, James Herrera and Jordan William, together with Brown, give real life to the banter and camaraderie among mostly average Joes drawn into a desperate struggle.

Janice Gardner as a doctor with a heart of gold and David Jacobs as Ned’s straight brother also give strong performances in this powerful and moving work.

Director Christine Louise Marshall, cast and crew have done well by a play that raises many issues which are, alas, still with us today.

 

Steve Feeney is a freelance writer who lives in Portland.