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An extraordinary presentation of 'The Normal Heart'

Nick Shackleford, right, confronts his lawyer brother Ben (Leon Contavesprie).
Nick Shackleford, right, confronts his lawyer brother Ben (Leon Contavesprie). ©Allways Theatre

"The Normal Heart"

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Playwright Larry Kramer wrote what was a largely autobiographical work on the beginnings of the AIDS crisis in New York City back in 1985. It covers the years from 1981 to 1984, when no one knew what it was that was killing hundreds of gay men there.

Titled "The Normal Heart," it first opened off-Broadway and was later revived in London and Los Angeles and re-opened off Broadway in 2004. More recently, though, it had another revival in 2011, opening for the first time on Broadway. That production starred TV actor Jim Parsons ("The Big Bang Theory") and received a Tony Award for Best Revival of a Play.

Directed by Kris Shaw, "The Normal Heart" is now being presented for the very first time on a New Orleans stage by the Always Theatre. It may be that a distance of 30 years from the action may have made the play less painful, but it is no more less compelling and still quite heart-rending.

New York actor Nick Shackelford, who has just relocated to New Orleans is quite riveting as Ned Weeks, the tireless in-your-face, confrontational AIDS activist, who like Kramer in real life, organizes crisis groups to combat the disease and its outcome. Shackleford gives a tour-de-force performance.

Also, quite good on the stage and giving a memorable performance is Sam Dudley as Felix Turner, the New York Times fashion critic, who becomes Weeks’ love interest. The two share intimate scenes on stage that transcend the horror of the disease they are battling as a couple.

Notable supporting work is turned in by Leon Contavesprie as Ned’s attorney brother Ben. Kyle Daigrepont plays a city worker scared to take a stand for fear of his job, while Jonathan Mares is well cast as the president of the organization Weeks founds. Also worth seeing is Hunter Shirley as activist Tommy Boatright and Lisa Picone as Dr. Emma Brookner, a doctor who concludes the disease is spiking because of rampant sexual promiscuity in the gay community. Eventually, it is the work of health professionals like her and hundreds of others across the globe that finally connect unprotected sex with the spread of what will be later known as HIV.

This is a powerful drama with some gutty language, but it is worthy of being seen as a true testament to the triumph of love over death and the indomitable spirit of the human race in rising above tragedy.

The set is sparse and the lighting is minimal, yet the work transcends any technical shortcomings. It only has a week left – till April 19 – but it is worth seeing. While the feelings of many who lost friends, relatives and artists to the dread disease of AIDS are still raw, it should be seen by as many people as possible to show the bureaucracy and pushback the New York City administration gave to gay leaders.

"The Normal Heart" continues at The Allways Theatre, 1030 Marigny St., at 7:30 p.m. on Thursday through Sunday. The play closes on Saturday, April 19.