Review: The Normal Heart (Studio 180/Buddies In Bad Times)

The first thing I need to tell you about the Studio 180/Buddies in Bad Times co-production of The Normal Heart is that you must go and see it. Must. Utterly non-optional for anyone who ever likes theatre a little bit, which I presume you must since you are reading a theatre blog. Go ahead and click over to get your tickets, I’ll wait.

Fair enough, The Normal Heart  – an early-AIDS-pandemic drama set in 1980s New York City – is an extraordinary play on all axes. Like much that’s great in art, it is perfectly and specifically of its moment in that way that allows a piece to be universal. And yet we don’t need it to be universal. We’re still living in that perfect storm of fear, outrage, and ignorance that allowed the epidemic to burgeon, unchecked.

This script, like any other that’s truly great – great as an exponential value well beyond the good or the very good or any other increment – is also very demanding. It shows any flaws of the production clearly. This production has so few they’re almost not worth detailing – okay, there’s one thing I really didn’t care for, but otherwise it was just marvelous: fresh, tender, nuanced, vibrant with fear and longing.

The production is arranged in the round, around a dance floor that blinks like a discotheque during the interstitial scene-change-furniture-moving. I am not in general a fan of productions in which I spend a lot of time looking at the backs of actors. However, director Joel Greenberg has clearly impressed upon the cast how crucial the round-style makes it to be invested in what the other characters are saying.

I laughed myself sick watching Felix’s face as Ned rambled and ranted on their first date, and cried watching Tommy’s face fall as Mickey lost the last of his resolve near the end. It didn’t matter at all that I couldn’t see the principal speakers’ face.

It’s tempting to start singling out actors and their performances, but really, they all did very well. I did not adore Jonathan Seinen as Tommy Boatwright at the beginning, but his slight awkwardness really grew on me as the show progressed. Jonathan Wilson captured Ned Weeks’ peculiar and demanding hysteria keenly without making him a caricature, and even with so much to do in the show he didn’t let up for a minute.

My aforementioned one complaint is a casting complaint: Sarah Orenstein did a dandy job as Dr. Emma Brookner, but was there really not a single actor in the GTA who actually uses a wheelchair, even sometimes, who could have been cast? Admittedly, this is a pet peeve of mine, but I cannot imagine why a director who wouldn’t dream of using blackface will still cast walking actors in roles that use mobility aids.

A few other kudos must be awarded; sound designer Verne Good’s choice to make a virtue of the inevitable scene changes by choosing music that went from proper do-ya-wanna-funk disco to the abject misery of 80s synth, mirroring the decline in optimism among the cast. And when Jonathan Wilson found himself, due to technical failure, trapped onstage in his underwear without his scene partner, he vamped effortlessly and bantered with the audience (none of whom pointed out that boxer briefs didn’t exist in 1981, cute as they were on him).

Even still, this production of The Normal Heart is a marvel, and I was quiet and delighted in reflection all evening after seeing it.


THE NORMAL HEART is performed until November 6, 2011 at Buddies in Bad Times Theatre, 12 Alexander Street, Toronto.  Box Office — 416-975-8555

Photo credit John Karastamatis

9 thoughts on “Review: The Normal Heart (Studio 180/Buddies In Bad Times)”

  1. … you mention above, “I cannot imagine why a director who wouldn’t dream of using blackface will still cast walking actors in roles that use mobility aids.” … interesting observation, but i don’t think there’s really any need to draw a comparison like that, that’s so incoes not endiary.
    … what would be a scandal obviously, is if people with mobility aids were not allowed to audition for the part, or — similarly — were she (ms. orenstein) to have been given the part without an audition, that compared the merits of her acting to those of other actors. were the circumstances of casting something like that, then yeah, i’d agree with you that something is awry. … but in your review, there’s no evidence cited to suggest that a deeper injustice relating to process has been committed. … that an actor that doesn’t usually use a mobility aid plays a character that does, does not, i don’t think warrants aspersion on the casting. …

  2. Adam, I really disagree. Your take on the topic supports the model that “disability” is an incompleteness. It’s a common idea among people who are, however temporarily, able-bodied. But I believe, and I am in good company in my belief, that the Dis/ability is (or can be, a person with disabilities chooses it) an identity as well as a physical type. Many things in the role would be informed by the experience of the person in it, and – in *exactly* the same way that we don’t rub shoe polish on actors and call them First Nations anymore – we should not put able-bodied actors into wheelchairs and pretend that they are able to bring same things as a person who uses a wheelchair can.

  3. … you’re mistaking broader social concepts of body morphology with what i’m saying. … my comment had nothing to do with the completeness or incompleteness of a person based on disability. … but, what your review assumes is that their was a bias against disability in the casting process, and provide no evidence to back it up. … it’s one thing to stand-up for injustice — more power to you, there’s plenty of it — it’s another thing to claim injustice in a specific tinstance and not provide any specific evidence to back-up your point of view. .. sure, there’s a lot of good reason to feel that people with mobility issues are at a disadvantage in society, but going after the casting of a play, for which you provide no evidence there was any bias at work, seems like — i dunno — very select, unwarranted discrimination

  4. @adam:

    I understood Bear’s point as being about how playing a character in a wheelchair involves more than just taking any old person and plopping them in a wheelchair. In the same way that being Black is more than just about skin tone. It’s about identity and lived experiences, in as much as it is about physical differences.

    I don’t think the review assumes a bias against disability. If we’re casting for a play in which there is an Asian character, we go out and find an Asian actor. We don’t say, “Asian actors are permitted to audition, so there’s no bias here, but if none show up, we’ll make a white person look Asian.” There’d be an uproar if that were to happen. But somehow, we don’t call bullshit when someone says “Actors who use wheelchairs in their daily lives were permitted to audition, so there’s no bias here, but none showed up, so we put a non-wheelchair user in a chair.”

    @S. Bear Bergman:

    Thanks for the review. Now I have to resist the temptation to look up the history of boxer briefs.

  5. Adam, I don’t have to prove a bias. The end result was that a non-wheels-using actor played a role which demands a wheelchair. I do not agree with that choice, and I would not have done it.

  6. … welllll, i still stick by my comment that comparing the casting vhoice to blackface is incendiary. blackface and minstrel had to do with making fun of blacks, and black / white racial history is not something to be lightly invoked. … i also stick by process over end result. if a process is fair, and there’s no reason to believe it wasn’t here, then the end result is, by definition, fair. it doesn’t work the other way ’round though, an apparently “fair” end result, of having a disabled person playing a disabled person onstage, that forgoes a fair open casting process is just not fair. able-bodied people don’t deserve discrimination or contempt or resentment just because society has injustices in it. … if you want to advocate on behalf of disabled people, why not expand the legitimate opportunities available by pushing other productions to consider casting the handicapped in parts where no handicapped is specified? there’s plenty of space for progress without disparaging a casting choice that doesn’t match-up with superficial attempts at broader-based fairness.
    and i do think big claims — that suggest or might be misinterpreted as major cricism — do need to be backed-up. otherwise it’s just empty rhetoric, and, as i said before, casts an unwarrented aspersion on innocent good work.

  7. I don’t find the comment incendiary and made the editorial decision to leave it in, or more accurately, I found it innocuous enough that it never even crossed my mind to remove it in the first place.

    In the context of the review it’s not an accusation of discrimination, Bear merely uses it to make a legitimate comparison and to challenge the casting choice that he personally had an issue with. I think Adam might be reading much more into the comment than what was meant.

  8. I disagree with both Adam and Bear. First of all, there is nothing at all in the review that infers or implies the deliberate exclusion of disabled actors from the production or the audition process, so I’m perplexed as to what in the article led Adam to that conclusion. Bear simply wonders if it was not possible to have searched harder for an actor in a wheelchair who could have played the part of a wheelchair-bound character. There was nothing at all said to suggest an anti-disability bias on the part of the director.

    That said, I don’t necessarily agree with Bear either. Actors ACT. They pretend to inhabit circumstances which they do not in real life. You cannot compare something which cannot be simulated without looking blatantly false – such as pretending a white person is East Indian – with something that CAN be simulated through a strong performance, such as the portrayal of a disability. I am an actor who was once played Scarlett in Lion In The Streets; I am not wheelchair-bound nor do I have cerebral palsy. I played it because I was the best actor for it, disabled or otherwise. There are MANY characteristics that an actor must be able to bring to a role. No director worth his/her salt would cast someone who uses a wheelchair over a stronger actor who doesn’t – not that director’s first service is to the performances.

    I think that Adam DOES make a great point in that rather than saying that every disabled role needs to be filled by a disabled actor, the REAL progress lies in saying that every role with no specificity as to ability does NOT need be filled by a fully able-bodied actor. If a role exists that can be played by someone in OR out of chair, more directors must have the guts and the originality to start casting those roles with disabled actors.

    I understand your viewpoint Bear and I respect where you’re coming from. However following your reasoning, Helen Keller can only be played by a blind deaf-mute, because a sighted/hearing/speaking person cannot possible truly understand what it is to inhabit a dark and silent world. What other physical conditions would this apply to? Can only a diabetic actor play a diabetic but only he/she knows what it’s like to have to inject oneself with insulin everyday? Or a character with kidney disease? Can you not portray it well if you don’t have dialysis as part of your actual life? What about the role a cancer patient who has lost a breast? Can we not cast someone and tape her breasts down? Are we now obligated to find an actor who has had a mastectomy because only she can truly understand it?

    Actors PRETEND. That is the job. Directors cast the people who they believe can portray the many facets of a character the best. To say that a disabled actor should always be cast in a disabled role is to be dismissive of both the actor and the role. It is to suggest that “disabled” is the totality of the role and that there isn’t far more that imbues the humanity of the character. There is. We immerse ourselves in lives, in realities, that are not our own. It’s what we do. It’s why we’re actors.

  9. thank you for the review, i am thrilled that the show is resonating with audiences….i supposed i’m lucky too, remaining unscathed for not actually being jewish, but acting like i am, and of course any of the straight actors in the show portraying gay men on stage, and then going home to their beautiful wives…

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