Perhaps the saddest aspect of The Normal Heart, Larry Kramer's autobiographical 1985 play about the first wave of AIDS deaths, is that it doesn't feel like a museum piece. If only it did. Two and a half decades into the epidemic that has claimed millions of lives worldwide, Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome has dropped out of the headlines. There is no cure and little public or political outcry to find one. People are still dying of AIDS, though thanks to new treatments more slowly than they did in the 1980s, but when's the last time a celebrity wore a little red ribbon at the Oscars?
Maybe it's just the right time to rediscover Kramer's play, imperfect though it is, and to find new reasons to be inspired and educated by its fierce debate over who's really to blame for the spread of AIDS. This is a play that seethes with anger--at the disease itself, at politicians, at doctors, at gays who refuse to alter risky behavior, at gays who won't come out of the closet and at straights who would prefer that they didn't. In every line there's a powerful sense of urgency that something needs to be done now--an urgency we haven't heard in discussions of AIDS in a long, long time.
Among the smart choices made by director Regan Adair and his fine ensemble of nine actors in Uptown Players' beautiful production of The Normal Heart is the one not to spit out every speech as urgently and as angrily as Kramer may have intended. In 1985, this play was a new brand of gay agit-prop theater, meant to be noisy and unsettling. Now, in these noisier and more unsettled times, a gentler approach gets Kramer's message across. Something needed to be done in the now of 1985. Watching this play, it becomes clear that something still needs to be done in the now of now.
Instead of yelling and screaming, Uptown takes a different tack. Their take on the play feels intimate, almost reverent. The big emotions are there, but there's a graceful elegance to the languid pacing of the scenes (without making the evening overlong). Even on the wide, tall stage of the El Centro College Performance Hall (Uptown's temporary home following an electrical fire earlier this summer at the Trinity River Arts Center), the actors seem to speak barely above a whisper, though that may just be the impression given by the restraint of the performances.
The subtlety of the acting serves to balance Kramer's many furious rants. Each actor, particularly Paul Taylor and Mark Shum in the leads, finds the soft spot in his or her character. It's their believable humanity and sincere vulnerability that touch us most, not the crescendo of the noisy confrontations Kramer's so fond of. The assault now isn't to the ears, it's to the conscience.
The hero of The Normal Heart is a gay activist and writer named Ned Weeks, played with lovely openness by Taylor. It is the summer of 1981 when the play begins and the first reports of a mysterious "gay cancer" are starting to surface. In New York's gay circles, there's talk of young men coming down with ugly purple lesions and dying of a rare pneumonia. Dr. Emma Brookner, played by Emily Banks, sees a clear pattern in the deaths. The victims all are gay and promiscuous. Stop having sex, she advises, and the illness will stop spreading.
But gay men, according to Kramer's view of history, believe they've earned their right to enjoy the post-Stonewall sexual revolution. It may be the Reagan years, but nobody's ready to just say no to a night at the baths or a romp with a good-looking stranger. "Do you realize," asks the Weeks character, "that you are talking about millions of men who have singled out promiscuity to be their principal political agenda, the one they'd die before abandoning? How do you deal with that?"
Weeks' way of dealing with it is to start talking and organizing. He founds a gay men's health hotline (in real life, Kramer co-founded the Gay Men's Health Crisis and ACT-UP), and he badgers the media and political leaders to bring more attention to the new plague. He's especially tough on then-New York mayor Ed Koch, who won't discuss anything to do with AIDS with gay community leaders, and on the editors and reporters at The New York Times. Kramer compares the Times' scant coverage of AIDS in the early 1980s to the paper's lack of reporting on Hitler's Final Solution in the 1930s. Neither earned page one status, says Kramer, until it was too late to stop the tragic outcomes.
Among Weeks' friends in the play are men who too conveniently fit some gay stereotypes: Tommy, the swishy "Southern bitch," played with a light comic touch at Uptown by Cedric Neal; Bruce (Elias Taylorson), a closeted Citibank exec who kicks Weeks out of the AIDS organization for "making sex dirty again"; and Mickey (Jack Birdwell), a self-hating Jewish city employee who considers jumping off the Empire State Building rather than give up his right to "love openly."
Again and again Ned Weeks implores his heterosexual brother Ben (Bob Hess), a wealthy attorney, to use his money and connections for the cause. Ben refuses and rejects Ned's requests to be treated as an equal rather than a head case (there's stuff early in the play about Ned being forced by Ben into psychiatric treatment to "cure" his homosexuality).
The love interest is handsome Felix (Mark Shum), who's conflicted about coming out and, even worse, works as a reporter at the Times. His and Ned's romance is an unlikely one, but Uptown's actors save what on the page is a pretty soppy soap-opera scenario. We know Felix will fall ill--how else will Ned Weeks justify his commitment to the campaign?--but when he does, it's a surprise how delicately it's handled by Uptown's Taylor and Shum. There is real passion in their final scenes together. But there is also the same sort of sweet, wrenching sadness of the "let go" scene in the film Longtime Companion.
The Normal Heart is a play loaded with dramatic landmines. Kramer makes Ned Weeks (his alter ego) into a bristling cipher who speaks long stretches of facts and figures. Every character is awarded a too-long soliloquy--or two. And scenes seem to come to multiple denouements. There are also a lot of spurious "facts" and conspiracy theories put forth, including the assertion that AIDS could have come from government experiments meant to eradicate gay men altogether.
Kramer hasn't moved away from radical ideas. In a speech in 2004, he told a standing room-only crowd at Manhattan's Cooper Union that gays still were ignorant about and indifferent to their own demise and that a country filled with homophobes was happy to see them self-destruct. "I do not see us, don't you see? They are killing us," said Kramer. "They are eradicating us from this earth. Little by little by little we are disappearing. I do not see us, and I am beginning to see us less and less."
How prescient that The Normal Heart ends with two gay men repeating marriage vows to each other just before one of them dies. The relevance of this play lies right there in a reminder that, in so many ways, it's still 1985.
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