The political and the personal collide with devastating effect in Larry Kramer's powerful and passionate 1985 play, The Normal Heart, about the early years of the AIDS crisis, now launching its national tour at Arena Stage. Part history lesson, part cautionary tale, and part call to continuing action, this thinly disguised autobiographical work focuses on the efforts of crusading journalist Ned Weeks (Patrick Breen) to get New York's gay community -- as well as its government and media -- to pay attention to the mysterious disease that is rapidly claiming the lives of gay men.
Ned is sparked into his quest by no-nonsense, paraplegic physician Emma Brookner (Patricia Wettig), but Ned's pleas to having his gay brethren to follow her exhortation to stop having sex altogether -- as well as his hair-trigger temper -- eventually alienates him from fellow activists Bruce Niles (Nick Mennell), Mickey Marcus (an excellent Michael Berresse), and Tommy Boatwright (the very fine Christopher J. Hanke), and even his beloved older brother, Ben (John Procaccino). His dedication to the cause is only intensified when his lover, New York Times reporter Felix Turner (Luke MacFarlane), contracts the mysterious, life-threatening illness.
While the entire cast -- most notably, Breen, MacFarlane, and Wettig -- gives highly committed and extremely intelligent performances, director George C. Wolfe or restaging director Leah C. Gardiner has turned the intensity level down a bit from the Tony Award-winning Broadway production -- which is probably a conscious choice to accommodate the intimate Kreeger Theatre. But Kramer's play is meant to be a loud polemic, and the occasional subtleness of these performances slightly lessens the great work's impact.
Subtlety does no favors either to Shakespeare's slighter-than-slight comedy The Merry Wives of Windsor, being presented at Sidney Harman Hall by the Shakespeare Theatre Company -- the 2012 winner of the Tony Award for Outstanding Regional Theatre.
In this production directed by Stephen Rayne, Daniel Lee Conway's inventive, beautiful set -- which evokes small-town England at the end of World War II -- and Wade Laboisonniere's spot-on costumes provide consistent visual appeal, even when the machinations of this extremely silly story about the revenge taken by wronged wives Mistress Page (Veanne Cox, priceless as ever) and Mistress Ford (the lovely Caralyn Kozlowski) against the loutish, lusty Sir John Falstaff (David Schramm, ideally cast) sometime become dull.
Even more than many of the Bard's works, this play seems filled with a huge array of pointless supporting characters -- not to mention an uninteresting romantic subplot about three suitors vying for the hand of the Page's daughter, Anne (Alyssa Gagarin) -- which stretch this sketch to nearly three hours.
Fortunately, Rayne gets some first-rate performances from his cast. In addition to Cox and Schramm, there are noteworthy turns by the hilarious Michael Mastro as the overly jealous Frank Ford; the vivacious Amy Hohn as the meddlesome Mistress Quickly; the superb Tom Story as the foolish, foppish and French-accented Doctor Caius; and the blithering Michael Keyloun as the callow Slender, all of whom provide enough merriment to keep this souffle from falling completely flat.