Through Sunday, Feb.4
Murphey School Auditorium, Raleigh

Larry Kramer’s searing 1985 drama, The Normal Heartcurrently in a compelling revival from Burning Coal Theatre Companyis an autobiographical look back in anger at the dawn of the AIDS crisis from one of its epicenters: the thriving gay culture in New York City. Historians have documented how, when the HIV retrovirus tore through Manhattan during the early 1980s, its progress was largely unhindered because of homophobic neglect from the mass media and government leaders, disorganization and inadequate funding among medical researchers, and divisive politics within the gay community itself.

The Normal Heart defines Kramer’s unenviable position as a Cassandra figure: an outspoken activist whose dire warnings that the disease was being sexually transmitted were frequently dismissed after an earlier satirical novel of his critiqued the promiscuity of the gay community. Under Emily Ranii’s lucid direction, authoritative performances by Marc Geller as Kramer’s character, Ned, and Julie Oliver as the blunt Dr. Brookner, a physician on the front lines of the epidemic, redeem the opening’s thin expositional scripting and plunge us into a waking nightmare.

As too few people tackle an accelerating catastrophe, we watch Mickey, a city health department worker and freelance journalist, crack under the pressure in a riveting, career-best performance by Michael Babbitt. Preston Campbell adds another nuanced, standout role to his résumé as Kramer’s smart, savvy lover, Felix, and Byron Jennings II ably portrays Kramer’s foil, the conflicted head of a support organization.

As the disaster unfolds, one of Kramer’s most crucial points is easy to overlook. If the past goes unremembered, it doesn’t matter if gay history extends back to the philosophers of ancient Greece. If this recent account remains untaught, unseen, we cannot learn its bitter lessons. Kramer must remind us: what we forget still makes us most vulnerable.