When Larry Kramer wrote “The Normal Heart” in 1985, he meant the play to be a piece of agitprop. People were dying all around him, and yet few in leadership positions were doing anything about it, let alone acknowledging the crisis.
From the first line of the play, “Something’s wrong,” audiences at the Public Theatre were riveted by the story of angry activist Ned Weeks and his cohorts as they struggled to bring attention, care and dignity to people dealing with AIDS.
“The play was meant to get people off their asses and pay attention,” Kramer says on the phone from his New York home. “People responded with the tears and the fears I wanted to provoke. I wanted to write a play that made people cry.”
More than a quarter of a century later, AIDS is still with us, and “The Normal Heart” still has something to say. A benefit reading of the play in Los Angeles directed by Joel Grey went so well that producer Daryl Roth wanted to take it to Broadway.
Because Grey was in rehearsal for “Anything Goes,” George C. Wolfe, the former artistic director of the Public, took over directing duties. Kramer, 77, did not spend a lot of time in the rehearsal hall for the Broadway production, but he did attend the first run-through.
“I just broke into tears,” Kramer says. “I threw myself into George’s arms. I don’t know what he did, but it certainly works. There’s a lot of mystery in great directors.”
In June, Wolfe’s production won the Tony Award for best revival of a play (along with awards for two of the actors), and now the production is on the road. After a stint at the Arena Stage in Washington, D.C., the show is starting the American Conservatory Theater season in San Francisco.
“When ‘The Normal Heart’ first appeared, the sense of urgency was so important,” Wolfe says on the phone from New York. “You had a president, a government, a health care system, a mayor who were uninformed, indifferent, clueless – choose your word. This play was what it needed to be: loud, angry, in your face.”
Balancing urgency, intimacy
So when Wolfe approached the material anew, he trusted that the urgency was still infused into every word, but he wanted to balance that urgency with intimacy.
“After Larry saw this production, he said he didn’t realize he had written a love story,” Wolfe says. “Sure, it’s a combustible piece, but underneath, all the characters are doing what they do, getting angry and upset, to protect the people they love. It’s an epic American play because those times were epic.”
Patrick Breen was in the Broadway cast as a supporting character but has graduated to the leading role of Ned for the tour. He says the play has gone from being a scream for attention because people are dying to a work of living history.
“AIDS is like a chronic illness now. There’s not a cure yet, but the drugs can keep it under wraps, ” Breen says. “So when we do this play, we feel the audience, gay and straight, learning what the history of AIDS was. The disease is different today, but it’s still here, and there are still 35 million dead and 75 million infections worldwide. It’s not over, but I’m an idealist. I believe theater has the power to change opinions. The play ends with a gay marriage, which people were not talking about in the mid-’80s. In Washington, people asked us if we added that scene to make the play more contemporary. The answer is no. That’s history catching up with Larry Kramer.”
“She told me that Scalia only goes with her to the opera,” Breen says.
Overcoming health setbacks
Kramer, who counts the Gay Men’s Health Crisis and ACT UP (AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power) among his non-theater activism, was diagnosed with HIV around the time “The Normal Heart” was first produced, and he had a liver transplant about 10 years ago. The revival of “The Normal Heart,” he says, helped him realize something important.
“There are things you can do in a play that you can’t do anywhere else,” Kramer says. “It’s taken this recent big success on Broadway for me to see that. The play was never considered a good play. No one called me a great writer. But now people are writing and saying all these nice things. I sit there in the audience of the play, and I’m so thankful I had the gift to put this all together in a way that still makes people listen and cry. That is a gift, and I never treated it seriously enough. I will, if my new liver keeps holding out as it should. I have more years left in me to do more.”
That includes publishing a 4,000-page novel called “The American People,” which he’s been working on for almost 30 years. He’s also working with director Ryan Murphy on the long-gestating movie version of “The Normal Heart,” which was originally optioned by Barbra Streisand.
Still an activist, though maybe not quite as angry, Kramer says he’s an optimist.
“You couldn’t have lived through all this and not been an optimist,” he says. “I never stop believing that somehow it will eventually turn out all right. We haven’t found a happy ending. We’re a long way from finding it, but more of us are alive. I’m still alive, and that’s amazing.”
The Normal Heart: Previews Thursday -Sept. 18. Opens Sept. 19. Through Oct. 7. $20-$95. American Conservatory Theater, 415 Geary St., S.F. (415) 749-2228. www.act-sf.org.