StageWorks Fresno has made a name for itself producing fantastically high-quality musicals for the Fresno area, but in recent seasons their choices of language plays have made just as big an impact.
This season, “The Mountaintop” dazzled audiences with its unconventional, but ultimately loving portrayal of Martin Luther King, Jr.’s last night on earth. For their final production of the 2014 season, SWF is bringing the powerhouse rage of Larry Kramer’s “The Normal Heart” to the Bonner Auditorium at the Fresno Art Museum and directed by J. Daniel Herring. To make it a 1-2 punch, the play is running simultaneously with the FAM’s exhibit of sections of the AIDS Memorial Quilt.
“The Normal Heart” is a notoriously challenging piece – for both audiences and actors- so I asked a few members of the cast about their responses to the play. Two veterans of SWF had some terrific insights to share. Here are what Terry Lewis and Chris Mangels had to say:
What do you believe is the single most important takeaway of THE NORMAL HEART?
Chris Mangels: The marginalization of members of a society has never – in the history of mankind – served a benevolent purpose. I hope that this play will remind all of us of the danger inherent in ever turning our backs on our fellow man.
Terry Lewis: The Normal Heart deals with a very neglected (but important) aspect of American history, which is the history and struggles of the LGBTQ community – and more specifically, the struggles of gay men during and after the AIDS crisis. What happened to these people, and how our country essentially ignored the problem for years, is shocking and horrifying to me. Until I read the play, I don’t think I fully grasped the enormity of the problem and just how little was done by our government to help its own citizens, who were dying by the thousands. It’s a story that needs to be heard, to be told. To quote Santayana, “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it” – and this is something that must never be repeated.
Why is the play worth producing or seeing? What is here that people need or want to experience?
CM: Our society has become inundated with sensationalism and extremism, and I believe that it is important to see these characters as human beings: beautiful, flawed, courageous, self-serving… but most of all, real. There are no heroes or villains in real life and I love that The Normal Heart gives such a humanistic face to these beautiful souls who suffered through such neglect and anonymity for so long.
TL: This is not an easy play to watch. It’s challenging, it’s disturbing, it’s heart-wrenching – but it’s also beautiful, and touching, and poignant. It’s about a real modern-day plague on society, but it’s also a play about truth, and justice, and ultimately about love. It should be seen by everyone, gay and straight – the truths are universal.
How is this play different from other theatre productions in the area? Also, how is it different than the HBO film – what will the audience get from the live experience?
CM: Live theatre is the only art-form which demands collaboration and connection amongst everyone involved… from the audience to the actors to the directors, designers, and crew. This play paints an incredibly startling picture of the marginalization of those who suffered through the early days of the AIDS crisis. I believe that the audiences who take this journey with our company will truly be able to cherish the connectivity they share as they are faced with the overwhelming isolation of these characters.
TL: Stageworks Fresno has a wonderful reputation for being daring enough to produce the kind of plays that almost no one else in town will risk putting on. This is a play that Fresno audiences may never have a chance to see again, or perhaps not for a long time. We have a great cast, a wonderful director, and it’s in the beautiful and intimate Bonner Auditorium, where they have previously produced I Am My Own Wife and God of Carnage. Audiences can expect a moving, powerful night of theater.
How or why does the play excite you as an actor?
CM: The Normal Heart paints an unflinchingly objective portrait of the people who experienced these events. As an actor, it’s an in incredible challenge to try and bring the raw humanity of these characters to life in a way that honors both their heroism and their shortcomings.
TL: As an actor, I am drawn to characters that are flawed, but passionate. We’re none of us perfect human beings, and I love to play parts that allow me to show that imperfection. Ned (the character I portray in this play, and who is based on the author himself) is a complex, challenging, abrasive, somewhat unlikable character – but he’s also passionate, and committed, and capable of great love and caring. I think characters like Ned represent humanity as it really is, not some idealized version of ourselves. Our flaws are what make us beautiful.
What sort of person is going to love this show? Why?
CM: This show is for those people who have confidence in a brighter future; not because they refuse to see the darkness around them but because they believe there’s a spark in each and every human soul.
TL: I think anyone that loves powerful theater will love this show. It takes you by the throat, through a roller coaster of emotions, and despite the tragic circumstances it leaves you with an ultimately loving and hopeful conclusion.
StageWorks Fresno presents THE NORMAL HEART from September 12-28th at the Bonner Auditorium at the Fresno Art Museum. Find out specific dates, times, and ticket information at http://www.stageworksfresno.com/on-stage.html
The Drive-Thru interview is meant to be fast and satisfying information for your busy theatrical life. I choose a handful of questions off of a menu of over 100, and I get quick and pithy answers in return. Perhaps not the most nuanced or clever interview in the world, but in the drive-thru getting in and out is key!