When the landmark AIDS drama “The Normal Heart” first opened off Broadway in 1985, the plague devastating the gay community didn’t even have a name. Legions were dying, but there was little known about the disease and even less political and social will to try and fight the looming epidemic.
That’s the maddening atmosphere of apathy in the face of tragedy in which activist Ned Weeks, the character playwright Larry Kramer based on himself, takes a stand. In this eerily prescient work, Kramer takes aim at a list of targets — from the mayor’s office and the New York Times to the American medical establishment — in a blistering critique of the status quo.
The play is as passionate in its denunciation of a nation in denial as it is in its embrace of politics as a path to change. In this watershed drama, the Pulitzer-nominated playwright rages against not only the disease, but also the systemic inertia that hinders the search for a cure.
At the forefront
“He was a dangerous mind, I remember — unrelenting, fiercely political and way ahead of his time. At least that last part is how I see him now,” says Jon Moscone, artistic director of Cal Shakes who knew Kramer during his days at New York’s Public Theatre, where “The Normal Heart” remains the longest-running play ever.
“What he wrote and what he did as an activist was built on real anger that put him on the front line. He was unapologetic,
and that made him not universally popular. But now, this many years later, Larry is right on target; the anger has kept his writing — this play in particular — on fire, a pulsing and undeniable cri de coeur. In many ways, we are just catching up to Larry, which is both profound and a little sad.”
Legendary director George C. Wolfe (“Angels in America”) revived Kramer’s call to arms to great critical acclaim on Broadway last year. Far from being a musty period piece about the ’80s, it had most reviewers noting the haunting timelessness of the themes, from the struggles of the gay community for acceptance to the gaping holes in the health care safety net.
“What’s so beautiful about the play is that it helps people understand what is was like at the beginning,” says Leah C. Gardiner, who is re-creating Wolfe’s direction for the tour. “This play was a lightning rod for the movement. It surprises many people just how long and hard this fight for civil rights has been.”
Assault on the senses
In its review, the New York Times raved that it “blasts you like an open, overstoked furnace. Your eyes are pretty much guaranteed to start stinging before the first act is over, and by the play’s end even people who think they have no patience for polemical theater may find their resistance has melted into tears. No, make that sobs.”
Winner of the 2011 Tony for best revival, the New York production starred Joe Mantello, Ellen Barkin and Jim Parsons (“The Big Bang Theory”). The regional premiere, which runs from Sept. 13 to Oct. 7 at San Francisco’s American Conservatory Theater, doesn’t have same star power; however, it does feature several original cast members, including Patrick Breen as the unstoppable Ned Weeks.
Although many of the actors aren’t old enough to remember the early days of the AIDS crisis, the ensemble took pains to research the issues of that era and how they resonate today. From public health policy to the gay marriage debate, “The Normal Heart” strikes at the core of what it means to be a full-fledged member of American society.
“It’s about basic civil rights for those who have been marginalized,” Wolfe says. “This is a great play, and one of the reasons I respond to it is because it puts forth the notion that one man can stand up and say something is not right. It’s about one man stepping up and starting an entire movement, one man willing to risk everything to make the world a better place.”
When Kramer first began writing his work, the virus was shrouded in mystery. The action of the play is set in summer 1981, when there were only 41 known fatalities.
Today, the death count approaches 35 million. Some fear that if the rate of infection continues, AIDS may well surpass bubonic plague, also known as the black death, which ravaged Asia and Europe in the 14th century, as the world’s worst pandemic.
—‰’Normal Heart’ can seem passé at first,” Breen says.”We think we are so far beyond that now, aren’t we? But when you see it, you realize it’s no museum piece. Prejudice is still out there, and we all have a responsibility to speak out about it.”
In a leaflet the playwright has distributed after the performance, he cautions people against thinking that the battle against AIDS has been won. Not content with writing a watershed drama, Kramer remains a firebrand, still fighting to raise awareness about the disease.
“Please know that after all this time the amount of money being spent to find a cure is still minuscule,” he wrote, “that most medications for HIV/AIDS are inhumanely expensive … that pharmaceutical companies are among the most evil and greedy nightmares ever loosed on humankind.”
Indeed, many think the drama has gained resonance in the 27 years since its debut. ACT artistic director Carey Perloff, who saw the piece back in 1985, found that time had mellowed the play’s polemics while underscoring its harrowing sense of lost romance.
“It still had the visceral impact of its initial outing, but in the 30 years since its inception, it had somehow become a love story in a way that I hadn’t remembered,” Perloff says. “There are so many layers of love in the play: the love of two brothers, the love of two men for each other, the love of a group for each (of its members), the love for a city that is suffering.
Making it personal
“I just adored its heart and rage and compassion, and its opportunity for a company of remarkable actors to dig deep and engage in the fight.”
Perhaps the play’s endurance stems from Kramer’s gift for marrying the political with the personal. As Ned (Breen) rages in the face of injustice, he encounters a gallery of other characters trying to make sense of the unthinkable, including the tireless Dr. Brookner (Jordan Baker), a physician who battles the uncaring medical establishment; Mickey, a gay city employee (Michael Berresse) who crumbles under the weight of the mounting death toll; and Bruce (Nick Mennell), an ex-Green Beret who fights for the dignity of his dying lover.
Indeed, Wolfe envisions the set, a stark art installationlike space onto which statistics and archival information are projected, as a sort of memorial to the deceased. The director wanted to give the audience a sense of the scope of the loss in order to ignite the spark of conscience. In an election year, when issues of equality are once again at the forefront of public debate, he sees “The Normal Heart” as a rallying cry once more.
“The play asks the question, where do you stand? In a moment of need, in a moment of crisis, where are you?” Wolfe says. “Where is your compassion? Where is your art? Where are your politics?
“At the end of the day, what will you do to protect the people you love?”
‘the NORMAL HEART’
By Larry Kramer
Through: Oct. 7
Where: American Conservatory Theatre, 415 Geary St., San Francisco
Tickets: $20-$95, 415-749-2228, www.act-sf.org
PHOTO : Patrick Breen, left, and Luke Macfarlane star in “The Normal Heart.” (Scott Suchman)