Review: Searing 'The Normal Heart' Revisits Early Days of the AIDS Epidemic

by Joe Siegel

EDGE Media Network Contributor

Monday January 30, 2023

Graham Stokes and Richard Griffin in "The Normal Heart"
Graham Stokes and Richard Griffin in "The Normal Heart"  (Source:Marcia Layden.)

"The Normal Heart" is an emotionally devastating depiction of the beginning of the AIDS epidemic in the 1980s.

The late playwright/activist Larry Kramer sets the story in New York City in 1981, when a mysterious virus began afflicting gay men. No one knew where it came from or how to keep it from spreading.

Ned Weeks (Richard Griffin), a writer and activist, is alarmed when his friends start getting very sick, and sets out to bring attention to the disease. In an effort to spread awareness, Ned and some friends form a gay men's health organization. The leader, Bruce (Erik Dethlefsen) is a wealthy bank executive who is deeply closeted. Ned becomes an outcast after suggesting that they abstain from sex until a vaccine is discovered.

Ned approaches his wealthy brother Ben (Paul Oliver), a lawyer. Ben is reluctant to stick his neck out to help a bunch of dying gay men. One of the best scenes in the play is when Ned confronts Ben about his homophobia. Ben loves his brother, but feels deeply uncomfortable knowing Ned loves men. Griffin and Oliver are powerfully convincing as brothers who are struggling with their own emotions.

Ned begins dating Felix Turner (Graham Stokes), a style editor at the New York Times. Their first encounter in Felix's office is tense. Ned criticizes the newspaper for not giving more coverage to the disease which is impacting the gay community.

Director Tom Dimaggio's ("The Laramie Project") staging is effective, and the actors all give richly textured characterizations.

Griffin ("Social Security") portrays Ned as a man battling not only bureaucrats (Chris Verleger plays a tone-deaf flunky for Mayor Koch), but also members of his own community. Ned is passionate, determined, yet also given to self-doubt.

Stokes ("Exit Laughing") displays a dry wit and raw vulnerability as Felix, who becomes infected and realizes his own mortality. Stokes and Griffin have genuine chemistry together, and their final scene is deeply moving.

Warren Usey and Andrew Lugo provide solid supporting performances as Ned's colleagues, trying to deal with tremendous grief and confusion while working to raise money to help their friends.

Katie Preston is excellent as Doctor Emma Brookner, who wants to do more to help AIDS patients but is stymied by a lack of support from the medical establishment.

"The Normal Heart" excoriates not only closeted New York Mayor Ed Koch (who was revealed after his death to be gay), for refusing to provide funding to fight AIDS, but the media for a lack of coverage, the federal government for neglect, and wealthy (and closeted) members of the gay community who remained silent while others were getting sick and dying.

What Kramer makes clear is the fact that the conservative administration of President Ronald Reagan simply did not care about the deaths of gay men. It was due to the activism of organizations like ACT-UP and the Gay Men's Health Crisis (GHMC) which pressured the government to fund research and treatment for HIV/AIDS. Of course, many lives had already been lost.

"The Normal Heart" runs through February 5. The Players at Barker Playhouse. 400 Benefit Street, Providence, RI. For tickets, visit or call 401-273-0590.

Joe Siegel has written for a number of other GLBT publications, including In newsweekly and Options.