As I have so often done, I found my way to the theater, looking for stories to tell the truth about our lives. And as the theater and NYC have so often been a harbinger, not surprisingly, I found The Normal Heart by Larry Kramer.
Unlike the current production playing at the Golden Theatre through July 10, this was not a star struck affair. Raul Espazra, as Ned Weeks (and a stand in for Kramer) was just beginning to be talked about and Joanna Gleason in the role of the Dr Emma Brookner was a respected stage actress but no movie star. Instead, the pull was this shocking drama that had people buzzing, and its collision between fact and fiction. Did it really take 14 months for Mayor Koch to agree to a meeting with the Gay Men’s Health Crisis and then only send a representative? Did the New York Times really refuse to provide any significant coverage about AIDS while running front page articles on Toxic Shock Syndrome? Really?
And yet, at least in St. Louis, AIDS seemed somewhat removed.
It quickly became a reality. In response, friends and colleagues founded the St. Louis AIDS Foundation or began volunteering. I launched our alternate Currents/Direct Currents Series at the St. Marcus Theatre with Michael Kearns, the first openly gay, openly HIV positive actor in Hollywood and intimacies, his groundbreaking one man portrayal of various characters with AIDS. I remember how hungry people were for information and how Michael’s show somehow made it safe for them to explore some of the complexities of this new disease, including the social stigma so often attached to it.
Now of course, it is hard to remember a time when AIDS was not part of our landscape. Now, the facts are stunningly real. Since 1981, when Kramer began his clarion cry, over 35 million people have died and an estimated 75 million women, men and children have been infected with HIV/AIDS world wide.
Last October, The Normal Heart was resurrected for an acclaimed one night staged reading on Broadway in which it raised raised $150,000 for charity. I suspect producer Daryl Roth was floating the idea for a Broadway run. And now, a scant six months later— a virtual nanno second in theater time— the show has opened on Broadway and playwright Larry Kramer is having his Broadway debut at the age of 75. I also suspect that Kramer, a leading figure in the fight against AIDS who also co-founded the Gay Men’s Heath Crisis and Act Up is less excited about the cachet of Broadway than about the ability to continue to get the story out. He has been seen handing out fliers outside the theater about the seriousness of the AIDS crisis.
Unlike the original production 26 years ago in which buying a tee shirt (did they even have them?) would be considered a snazzy form of marketing, this production has the admirable forces of social media behind it. Kramer was an early proponent of same sex marriage and the performing and production team have joined forces with Evan Wolfson and Freedom to Marry to raise money, awareness and organize. Additionally. part of the profits will go to support the Actors Fund, amFAR, Friends in Deed and the Human Rights Campaign. Every Tuesday night following the play, there is a free post show conversation at the theater with notables from the HIV/AIDS, LGBT and allied communities. Tickets are also affordable and available at virtually every price point.
That is my kind of marketing, that acknowledges and supports the communities from which a work is borne. I was thrilled to learn that this historic play would be remounted and interested to see the way today’s multi-media platforms could involve new audiences and stimulate new conversations.
And I was also nervous to see it, frankly anxious about whether it would hold up as a vibrant piece of theater. I also wondered how it feel to revisit some of my own history, in a sense, to bring the ghosts of late friends and colleagues with me. Was critical objectivity possible? Did I even want to be objective?
All of that fell away with a burst of percussion that precedes the opening scene. The stripped down set by David Rockwell allows the action to focus sharply on the tightly written narrative with furious or funny scenes that frequently erupt in histrionic monologues like arias. In revisiting the play so many years later, I discovered new colors and textures that had passed me by in the rush of that heightened emotional time. I had forgotten how terrifying it was when people had no idea how HIV was transmitted and how their fear affected both friendships and intimacy. I hadn’t remembered the utter exhaustion of the early activists as they worked to organize, raise money and call attention to the crisis. And while LGBT people still don’t have full protections under the law in most of the country, the workplace discrimination was more pervasive back then, promoting closeting and yet more tensions between colleagues and friends.
The Normal Heart is one heck of a history lesson. We know that some of the characters we meet in the course of the play will contract HIV/AIDS or lose partners and friends. So the drama is not in discovering the narrative but rather in knowingly seeing it unfold with the insight of time and distance. Nevertheless, it packs a wallop, especially as the real life names of the dead projected onto the brick walls of the theater mount, until they are filling the whole space.
In today’s Broadway, it is unusual to put up a chestnut without a star. In this case, a bevy of stars: Joe Montello of Angels in America fame, John Benjamin Hickey from The Big C on Showtime, Luke MacFarland from Brothers & Sisters, and of course, Ellen Barkin, a genuine movie star. However, it is also an excellent ensemble and some of the strongest work comes from younger actors like Jim Parsons, an up and comer who has attracted a lot of attention for his work in the comedy, The Big Bang Theory.
Co-directed by George C. Wolfe who directed Angels in America on Broadway and Joel Grey, this production finds humor when it can and it is welcome relief. Because understandably, there is yelling. A lot of yelling. And the need to verbally and physically project in a Broadway house sometimes threatens the nuances that characterize the best of any theater.
But ultimately, it doesn’t matter. It is riveting drama and a must see for fans of both theater and those who would seek to understand our history. I sat shell shocked at the conclusion of the play along with most of the audience, drawn into the story, wondering about the passage of time and deeply saddened, frustrated and yes, angered at the homophobia that allowed a possibly containable virus to spin out of control.
Joan Lipkin is the Artistic Director of that Uppity Theatre Company and most recently directed The Big, Fat, LGBT Show of Shows in St Louis which is touring to both schools and corporations and Happiwy Ever After for the Fresh Fruit Festival in New York City. Her work with LGBT youth is also featured in the new anthology, Out & Allied.
BY: JOAN LIPKIN