Hot City Brings A Stunning Production of “The Normal Heart” To Stage

John Flack and Eric Dean White in Hot City's "The Normal Heart." Photo: Todd Studios

John Flack and Eric Dean White in Hot City’s “The Normal Heart.” Photo: Todd Studios

Back in the early ’80’s we had friend who was planning to direct “L’il Abner” for a local community theatre group. He asked me to design the set and to please come to auditions and read for Marryin’ Sam. A month later he contracted what the doctor diagnosed as pneumonia. After two weeks, he died. This was my first real introduction to what was to become the AIDS epidemic. Soon after, we lost many more friends to this dreaded disease and no one knew why. Playwright Larry Kramer voiced our concerns eloquently in his play, “The Normal Heart.” Now, three decades later, it’s still a relevant piece of theatre and the message it imparts is still a powerful one.

Hot City Theatre has brought it back to our town and director Marty Stanberry and the solid cast allows us to painfully relive these moments all over again. It centers on a crusading journalist who tries to form a small group who will ask questions and fight to find the answers from the government, local health organizations and others as to why our friends are dying. Continually turning their back on the problem, those who could help, refuse for one reason or another. It’s only through the efforts of the fictitious Ned Weeks (based, of course, on Larry Kramer) that people begin to take notice and action slowly but surely is taken.

Lavonne Byers, John Flack and Greg Johnston surround the hospital bed of Eric Dean White in "The Normal Heart" at Hot City Theatre. Photo: Todd Studios

Lavonne Byers, John Flack and Greg Johnston surround the hospital bed of Eric Dean White in “The Normal Heart” at Hot City Theatre. Photo: Todd Studios

John Flack is one of our finest actors- whether in musicals at Stages St. Louis, the poignant portrayal of a soldier in Ken Page’s “Cafe Chanson” or his hilarious turn as a nun in “The Divine Sister” at Hot City last year, he’s proven time and time again what a versatile and powerful performer he is. But he has outdone himself with a riveting and outraged Ned in “The Normal Heart.” He explodes with venomous fury at the inattentiveness of the people who refuse to acknowledge the problem that the homosexual community is going through with this unexplained killer disease. It’s almost scary how much he puts into this role and how it mesmerizes the audience.

Eric Dean White is also a standout as his lover and eventual victim to the AIDS virus while Greg Johnston gives a wonderfully strong performance as Ned’s brother, Ben, who is reluctant at first to provide him with legal help but soon finds his conscience and offers his help and support. Lavonne Byers is superb as the one strong advocate among the medical community who suffered through her own enigmatic medical crisis years before when struck with polio.

Greg Johnston as Ben listens to the pleas of his brother Ned- John Flack- in Hot City Theatre's "The Normal Heart." Photo: Todd Studios

Greg Johnston as Ben listens to the pleas of his brother Ned- John Flack- in Hot City Theatre’s “The Normal Heart.” Photo: Todd Studios

The trio of committed yet wary companions who help Ned out in his fight are Tim Schall, Reginald Pierre and Ben Watts. Each has his own reason for not following Ned into the actual lion’s den, but they stick by him feeling the same kind of frustration that he does. Rounding out the cast in fine fashion are Stephen Peirick and Paul Cereghino in numerous roles. Marty Stanberry’s direction is solid and effective. It becomes a not-so-gentle reminder that this was a disease that was long ignored- mainly because it affected only the homosexual community- and that it’s still prevalent today. It’s better understood and more treatable but still an insidious, dangerous affliction.

The stark Sean Savoie set design speaks perfectly to the subject matter in shades of grey with towering rust-covered beams encircling the stage. He also brings us the dramatic lighting design. The Patrick Burks projections and sound design are both great accents to the powerful story and JC Krajicek’s costumes are right on the mark.

“The Normal Heart” is a wake up call for those of us who lived through it and an overwhelming history lesson for those too young to have experienced the horrors of AIDS and the friends who died from it in the early days. It had a recent life with and HBO movie adaptation but this strong cast led by John Flack is more powerful than any film could ever hope to portray. This one is a must-see. It runs through September 27th at the Kranzberg Center. Give them a call at 314-289-4063 or contact them at hotcitytheatre.org for tickets or more information.

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