Tuesday, July 07, 2015

What Is The Normal Heart? A Review Of The Philippine Production Of 'The Normal Heart'


by Jay Fernando

(Note: The opinions expressed in this review do not necessarily reflect the views of LoveYourself.)

“We must love one another or die.” 

W.H. Auden hated that line and struck it out of the poem he wrote where the phrase The Normal Heart came from. But the line remained on various published versions of the poem and these words must have resonated with Larry Kramer, playwright of The Normal Heart when he wrote that powerful exchange between Ned Weeks and his brother Ben as Ned confronted him about his homophobia:

     BEN: Agreeing that you were born just the same as I was born isn't gonna save your dying friends.

     NED: That is exactly what is going to save my dying friends!

This may be debated upon – that it is an incessant belief that homosexuality is a crime and a disease that is killing us off and not HIV – is only one among the various points made by the play, arguments that could not be resolved overnight.  It wasn't about the answers though, as about the hard questions asked.

The Normal Heart is set in the past, but doesn't belong comfortably in the past. It is set in New York City, but is as relevant to its Manila audience.

To Bart Guingona, the local production's director and lead actor, Manila 2015 is not so different from New York 1982. With an alarming increase of reported HIV cases in the country, we may be losing the battle that started in the early 80’s.

The Normal Heart though is more than just about AIDS. It is about the medical industry, research and access to healthcare; it is about activism, politics, power and the conflict between personal and political agenda; it is about family and friends, and the differences that break them apart; it is about leading an ethical life and how one would want to be defined either by convention or conviction. The Normal Heart is a war story and like all war stories, it is about the human spirit’s desire to survive.

Ultimately, The Normal Heart is about love. About finding and keeping it and being changed by it. We may or may not agree with the play’s protagonists Ned and Bruce, with how they behaved and acted, how they argued about finding a way to stop the gaping hole that is the AIDS epidemic from gobbling up all their friends and lovers. What was true for both was that both experienced love and fought hard, even against each other, because of that. These characters are fictional but who they are and what they stood for is very real.

There was a storm during the last night of the production's very limited run but theater enthusiasts all over the metro braved the rain to see the play. They know it is important that they see it and support it, as The Normal Heart is one of the plays you do not merely watch, but experience. In the end, the play deserved the standing ovation it received but what it truly deserves is funding and sponsorship as it is one of the most relevant plays ever mounted at the Carlos P. Romulo Auditorium.

In one of the play’s final few scenes, Felix, the one whom Ned didn't manage to scare away, turned to him and said “you cannot force the goddamn sun to come out!” But we cannot just drown in the rain and not try to do anything.

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Jay Fernando is a writer and loving father to two cute dogs. He is also a volunteer for LoveYourself, an advocacy that offers free HIV testing in the Philippines. It also champions the values of self-worth and positive change to galvanize the community against the growing HIV/AIDS epidemic in the country. 

The Philippine production of The Normal Heart had a limited run from July 3 to 5 at the Carlos P. Romulo Theater in RCBC Plaza in Makati.