LARRY KRAMER'S The Normal Heart is not an easy play to produce. To punch through the wall of exhausting political rhetoric, emotional manipulation, and melodrama inherent in Kramer's script--indeed, in any script chronicling the early years of AIDS--and present an honestly moving portrayal of human suffering and strength is a daunting task. The Normal Heart was a seminal event in American theater when it premiered in the mid-'80s--an overwhelming critical and popular success that portrayed the catastrophe of AIDS and the vagaries of homosexuality in a brutally honest and critical manner. But 15 years later, the idea of sitting through yet another weepy play about beautiful young men dying slow, humiliating deaths of shit and lesions seems just plain sadistic to many a jaded audience member. Including me.

This is why, as I sat clapping vigorously through the second curtain call, I found myself wondering why I had enjoyed it so much.

For one thing, there is some darn good acting here. Marty Mukhalian is but a hair short of superb in her role of Dr. Emma Brookner--her passionate desperation and inevitable despair are both powerful and endearing. John Ferrange bristles with righteous indignation as Ned, the Cassandra of the AIDS crisis, as he tries in vain to rouse the apathetic to the tragedy destroying his world. Tim Gouran gives a solid performance as Felix, convincingly disintegrating as his insidious affliction drags him down. The most surprising and sympathetic performance is given by the outstanding Joe Wack, who portrays Mickey, the flamboyant gay activist, with an inspiring and touching humanity.

The production's only noteworthy flaw lies in the underdeveloped romance between Ned and Felix. Instead of being the primary axis upon which the story turns, it is relegated to a subplot, due to some halting and forced intimacy and a glaringly obvious lack of sexual tension. This, however, did not detract enough from the production's strengths to do significant harm, and the strong ensemble cast carried through to present a satisfying and recommendable evening of theater--inarguably the most enjoyable theater experience I have ever had at the Schmee.