In 1985, when The Normal Heart opened at the Public Theater in New York City, the AIDS epidemic was in its infancy at barely five years on, still dominated by prejudice, ignorance, and panic. Gay writer and activist Larry Kramer’s unrelentingly confrontational docudrama laid blame for lack of funding, research, and understanding on every side, from government agencies and medical authorities to the media and the gay community itself. Reviews acknowledged the power of Kramer’s messages, but often criticized the lack of character development and dramatic structure. Today, the play loses none of its cautionary impact because each year a million people worldwide still die of AIDS-related illnesses. But after 33 years, the play reveals more strengths than were initially noted, gratifyingly emphasized in Burning Coal Theatre Company‘s current production.

In The Normal Heart, a fictionalized story of true events from 1981 to 1984, gay activist and writer Ned is appalled that his gay friends seem unconcerned about a mysterious new illness that is killing off homosexuals in New York City. Armed with frightening statistics from Emma, a doctor treating patients with the illness, Ned puts together an organization to inform the public and lobby for government help. But he soon clashes with his colleagues, who view his tactics as too in-your-face, their preference being calm and polite meetings and publications that won’t turn off potential supporters.

Ned goes to his lawyer brother, Ben, for help, which Ben gives, up to a point, but won’t do more because he has never really approved of Ned’s orientation. Stakes are heightened when Ned becomes involved with closeted New York Times writer Felix Turner, Ned’s first real romantic relationship. When Ned learns Felix has become infected, Ned ratchets up his rants and confrontations, alienating himself from friends and officials, while the illness continues its devastating effects unchecked.

Kramer’s script includes a lot of statistics and background details that often threaten to turn the show into a lecture. He also gives his characters lengthy monologues, whose messages become repetitive, causing a drop in pace and interest. But there’s also trenchant humor, moving scenes, and astute warnings for any groups organizing for a just cause.

At Burning Coal’s official opening on Friday, January 19, some settling in was still evident, likely from a cancelled preview performance and reduced rehearsal caused by the major snowstorm in Raleigh on January 17. The first act seemed especially rushed, with scenes being shortchanged of nuance and actors breaking out of the scene too quickly to tackle the shifting of furniture for the next scene. But the second act was more fully fleshed out, allowing for several highly satisfying, emotional sections.

The role of Ned is hugely challenging. The number of lines alone is daunting and sustaining such a high level of angry, unvarying intensity is next to impossible. Marc Geller wasn’t afraid to make Ned irritating and exasperating, but also found the character’s human side, both in witty repartee and in revealing a romantic nature hiding under the crusty surface. His lengthy diatribes had fervor, but didn’t always convince they were uncontrollable outbursts from the character rather than lines required by the script.

Geller’s best scenes were spurred on by the production’s two most engaging actors. Julie Oliver’s feisty, no-nonsense doctor, Emma, displayed a huge heart for her patients’ well being. Her several confrontations with Geller had marvelous give-and-take as Emma purposely provoked Ned into further action. Oliver deserves extra credit for confidently maneuvering a motorized wheelchair throughout (Emma is a paraplegic polio victim).

Marc Filiaci’s Ben epitomized the successful, conservative lawyer who loves his brother as family but can’t come to terms with his sexuality. But instead of what could have been a caricature, Filiaci’s every expression and vocal tone opened a window into the character’s conflicted feelings. His sparrings with Geller were the show’s highlights.

Preston Campbell’s Felix filled the bill as Ned’s romantic partner, his relaxed confidence a good foil for Ned’s awkward nervousness. Campbell nicely registered Felix’s unwavering devotion to Ned, but was still working out the more dramatic outbursts required in the second act on opening night.

Kramer doesn’t give the other characters as much depth as these previous four, but the right actors can fill in the blanks. Byron Jennings’ Bruce, the closeted bank administrator silently helping Ned’s organization, had little to do for most of the show, until his second act monologue describing the harrowing plane journey he had to take with his dying lover to have a last visit with his mother. Few eyes were dry after this wrenching tale of Bruce’s personal encounter with public apathy to the illness. There was a similar turn for Michael Babbitt as Mickey, the put-on city health information officer, whose gripping breakdown under the stress of Ned’s demands was frighteningly real.

Additional cast members were given moments to shine, including David Hudson’s Hiram, the mayor’s assistant who wants to help but is resistant to Ned’s bullying; Cody Hill as flamboyant Tommy, a hospital worker who becomes the mother hen of Ned’s organization; and James Merkle in brief roles of dying patient, office worker, and orderly.

Director Emily Ranii‘s tightly paced staging made efficient use of two tables and three chairs in various combinations (along with Elizabeth Newton‘s scene-setting props), varying the positions to accommodate the in-the-round seating. In some cases, the blocking was overly active in attempting to give all sides good views, while other scenes were oddly unvaried in the actor’s positions, obscuring some key moments from much of the audience.

Scenic designer E. D. Intemann had dozens of red picture frames hanging in multiple rows above all sides of the stage, with a white envelope hanging within each of them, representing people who have contracted AIDS-related illnesses. After each scene, backstage personnel quietly removed some from the balcony above, and later, the actors began removing them, too. The gesture had a nicely chilling effect, enhanced by Intemann’s stark lighting.

The script is filled with profanity and crude sexual descriptions, although appropriate for the subject matter. The message about huge crises being ignored while people are suffering is worth being hammered home, especially in today’s fraught times.

The Normal Heart continues through Sunday, February 4. For more details on this production, please view the sidebar.