Today I watched The Normal Heart by Larry Kramer at Boston University directed by Vanessa Stalling. What an evocative experience.
The direction of this play was, to me, spot on. From the essentialist set, comprising of multiple chairs, an old school projector, some various props to the omission of extraneous sound and blackouts. The grey walls of the small playing space were completely filled with white chalk detailing facts about HIV both in the 80’s and now, listing names of those who contributed to the movement, or didn’t, or died. It was a beautiful testimony to all the work and dedication and information that surround the HIV epidemic, and done in such a way that was informative, not imposing.
The clear focus of this production was the intelligent exploration of the HIV epidemic and the people who put their life on the line to fight for action. The stylistic choices were all in service of the text and served to move the plot forward with clarity and decisive action rather than sentimentality.
But what’s wrong with a little sentimentality? Okay sentimentality is a bad word. It implies soppy, corning, heartstring plucking. What I love is a platform for emotional engagement. I realize this play calls for the intellectual engagement of the social politics as well as a personal connection to these characters. These beautiful, whole, characters who were acted extremely well, I might add. And Yes, I did cry. I was moved. I was touched. Yet I wanted more. The house lights (the only lights in the room to be specific) were on the whole time. I realize this may sound petty but bear with me. I am very conscious of staging such as in the round or alley that allows the audience to see each other. If it works, it works. If it is done without thought I feel let down, I think, what are we gaining? Why is seeing other audience members helping to inform the show? With a story about communication and the need for vocal conversations, I see how this may have been a ‘good’ choice. However tonight, as the lights lit up both the actors as well as the people sitting next to me I couldn’t help but wish for a little darkness.
Say what you will about the classic proscenium seating where audience members sit in darkness and how that is a traditional form that doesn’t allow for creative exploration of audience engagement. For me, and for better or for worse, there is a safety in darkness. I was with you, Normal Heart. I was feeling and thinking and breathing with you as we progressed towards the end and I opened myself to a potential emotional response, however I didn’t give myself over fully. Couldn’t. I am not someone prudish about crying in public. Love me a good cry. But the production aimed at something greater than my personal fulfillment and I never fully had the chance to drop everything in, if you will.
Last year I saw David Cromer’s production of Our Town at the Huntington Theatre and it was to this day one of the best pieces of theater I’ve seen to date. They had the house lights on for the majority of the play to great effect. I was in the town. I was living in this hyper minimalist set with all the talented actors, completely engaged. When Emily returns home to visit her life after she is dead, the house lights dropped, a curtain opened, and revealed a lusciously real kitchen lit with charming lanterns and actual bacon frying on a pan. I burst into tears. Among the emotional effects of being exposed to this glorious, rich world unlike everything I had just been watching, the switch in lighting gave me a moment to give myself over to my comfortable emotional blanket. When the lights switched back on and we finished the play, a key was opened in me and I left, unbelievably fulfilled.
So with a production like The Normal Heart, which is so beautifully written and carries with it such evocative personal responses, it’s a smart move to stay away from attempting to illicit emotional audience reactions. Yet, as I leave, the hint of tears on my checks, I wanted to go home and reread a book like Tell the Wolves I’m Home by Carol Rifka Brunt, continuing exploring the impacts of AIDS in private to have my own catharsis. I, as an audience member, regardless of my stance as an artist, an actor, a director a student of theater, but as an audience member, wanted that blanket to cry beneath.
It’s so important to see theater. I mean, obviously. But it’s so important. I can talk all the talk I want about ‘the dream’ production. But when I’m in it, when I’m watching a show I know what makes me happy. I know when I am fulfilled. If I’m not, I am thinking and working on what to change. These things should, and will, inform my work. For me, theatre isn’t about my individual expression of art; It’s about giving something to a community. So thank you Normal Heart. Not only did you give me something beautiful and enlightening in performance, but you let me be an audience member who loves theatre for the story’s sake and informed my future art.