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The enduring importance of The Normal Heart

Larry Kramer's fierce, passionate play is a founding text of AIDS activism, but it's not just history—a new production opens this fall.


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On July 26, the New York Times published an item announcing the marriage of 66-year-old architect David Webster to Larry Kramer, a 78-year-old author. The bland, pro forma piece noted that the ceremony took place at NYU Langone Medical Center, "where Mr. Kramer was recovering from surgery." (The wedding date had been set a few weeks before a bowel flare-up required Kramer's hospitalization.)

The event was an upbeat variation on the heartrending climax of Kramer's best-known work—The Normal Heart, a semiautobiographical account of the early days of the AIDS/HIV epidemic. In the 1985 play, writer Ned Weeks—a surrogate for Kramer—marries his lover, Felix, a closeted gay reporter for, yes, the New York Times, while Felix is hospitalized with AIDS. The marriage is in no way "legitimate"—the story takes place in the early 80s. But Ned and Felix feel a need to affirm their love before Felix's death.

Though rooted in medicine and politics, The Normal Heart is essentially a family drama—a genre that's been a staple of American theater from O'Neill to Hansberry to August Wilson. That's what gives it enduring power and relevance. The focus is on Ned's turbulent, passionate relationships with his partner, Felix; Ned's straight brother; a female doctor who shares his concern about the mysterious, nameless disease that's killing members of New York's gay community; and, most important, the extended "family" of people affected by the emergence of AIDS in the early 80s. This network of friends and lovers has been bonded by a shared lifestyle in which sexual freedom is essential—but now presents dire consequences. Formerly apolitical Ned is galvanized into activism; he and his circle establish a nonprofit support agency, modeled on the real-life Gay Men's Health Crisis, which Kramer cofounded. But Ned's intense, in-your-face approach alienates his allies, and he's expelled from the organization he spearheaded.

Kramer (whose writing credits included an acclaimed screen adaptation of D.H. Lawrence's Women in Love and the provocative 1977 novel Faggots) was indeed a controversial figure, willing to slam the political establishment and the gay community with equal fervor. His 1983 jeremiad "1,112 and Counting"—originally published by the New York Native newspaper and then syndicated throughout the LGBT press (including, when I was its editor, Chicago's GayLife newspaper)—opened with a call to arms that some readers found hysterical: "If this article doesn't scare the shit out of you, we're in real trouble. If this article doesn't rouse you to anger, fury, rage, and action, gay men may have no future on this earth." It went on to lambaste politicians for failing to address the epidemic, suggesting that closeted homosexuals in the New York and federal governments were to blame, and urged gay men to rethink sexual behavior: "All it seems to take is the one wrong fuck. That's not promiscuity—that's bad luck." Many in the gay community were repelled by Kramer's confrontational style. After being ousted from GMHC, he cofounded the militant group ACT UP (AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power), which mounted street demonstrations designed to get as many protesters arrested as possible—in front of newspaper and TV cameras, of course. Kramer was diagnosed as HIV-positive in 1988 and has been living with the virus since. Once a pariah in the gay community, he's now considered an elder statesman.

The Normal Heart was an off-Broadway hit in 1985 at the Public Theater, where it was mounted by visionary producer Joseph Papp. As Felix, the production featured D.W. Moffett, a member of Chicago's Remains Theatre. (During the run, Moffett returned to Chicago to re-create an emotionally charged scene from the play in a benefit I coproduced as a fund-raiser for the Biscotto-Miller Fund, which provides direct financial support to Chicago theater artists struggling with catastrophic illness.) The play received its first full local production in 1987, at Evanston's Next Theatre; Eric Simonson (now an Oscar-winning documentary filmmaker) directed, and the superb ensemble cast included the young Scott McPherson, who would go on to acclaim as a playwright with the 1990 hit Marvin's Room before dying of AIDS in 1992 at the age of 33.

This fall TimeLine Theatre is offering a new production, with David Cromer—who's also an acclaimed director—as Ned. "When we decided to do The Normal Heart, I contacted David to ask him to direct the show and he said, well, actually, I'd really love to play Ned and have you direct it," says TimeLine associate artistic director Nick Bowling. The cast also includes Patrick Andrews as Felix, Marc Grapey as Ned's brother, Stephen Rader and Alec Weissman as Ned's fellow activists, and Mary Beth Fisher as the doctor.

"Working on this play has made me examine my own issues," says Bowling. "I'm in my 40s, so I grew up in a world where it was a given that you had to practice safe sex, that sex could be connected to death. Fear was a huge part of growing up and coming out during that time. Sex and fear were very closely related. Consequently, so was fear and relationships. I see The Normal Heart being about fear and overcoming fear."

Bowling notes that, ironically, the tragedy of AIDS brought progress for gays in the long run. The crisis drew many apolitical gays, like Kramer, into the political process, increasing momentum for a wave of antidiscrimination laws around the country in the 1980s and '90s and paving the way for the marriage equality movement. "I'm not interested in political propaganda—'conservatives are out to get us,'" says Bowling. "I'm more interested in the internal story of this family drama. But it's always smart for us to look backward to understand where we are today and how to move forward."


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