Saturday, April 30, 2011

The Normal Heart

To say I enjoyed "The Normal Heart" by Larry Kramer is true but difficult.  Does anyone enjoy confronting painful truth?  When we go to the theatre should it only be a happy, enjoyable experience?  What I felt tonight at this performance was not happy.  It was not enjoyable.  It felt important, truthful, painful, and very current, and I am profoundly gratetful to have seen these actors tell me a story that moved me, made me remember, and made me think.

I was not expecting to have an emotional experience.  Possibly I was anticipating it to be a period piece - something of it's time but no longer relevant today.  I could not have been more wrong.  This play broke my heart and wrenched my soul.  The play begins by showing a small group of people going to a Doctor dealing with various severe illnesses, and as this "plague" increases so does the horror, passion, and outrage of those affected by it.  I was painfully reminded of friends I have known in my 25 years living in New York City who succumbed to the disease, recalling time spent in hospitals holding hands, and having to say goodbye much too soon to young men who were my own age.  The story surrounds the semi-autobiographical character of Ned Weeks, based on playwrite Kramer, and his call to arms at the onset of the AIDS epidemic.  The confusion surrounding the swift deaths of several people he knows leads him to become active in finding answers, and bolstered by unofficial yet definite medical information provided to him by Dr. Emma Brookner he takes on City Hall and the government demanding they recognize what is going on.  This leads to the formation of what we know today as The Gay Men's Health Crisis organization and the militant activist group ACT UP.  Along the way Ned finds love for the first time, only for them to discover that his lover, Felix, is infected and will pass away during the course of the play.  Kramer simply doesn't hold back in his hard core depiction of the disease and the governments lack of repsonse, nor should he; the subject matter demands this type of treatment.  Ned becomes passionately outspoken on the issue, unrelentingly so, spirited on and seconded only by Dr. Brookner. 

These characters, respectively played by Joe Mantello and, in a remarkable Broadway debut Ellen Barkin, push the government, and at many times we the audience almost to the breaking point in beautifully calibrated rises of outrage and fury.  I have seen this play in several other stagings, and so much about this production feels fresh and newly explored.  The first is Joe Mantello, who takes what could be an obnoxious and overwrought character and fleshes him out tenderly.  His Ned is full of insecurities yet becomes unafraid to shout the ugly truth when his sense of fairness is threatened.  To his credit he has the audience on his side from the beginning, and even when confronted with being removed from the organization he gave everything to create, it is the group of less controversial, less passionate men who remain in control that we demonize.  The play itself is very compact in it's writing, which is good because we are given a slew of information throughout, one shocking point after another.  The theatrical highlights, if they need be chosen in an evening that is full of them, came for me in Act 2.  One of Ned's co-founders recounts a harrowing tale of taking his ailing lover on an airplane, the details of which I simply cannot bring myself to repeat.  I found myself uncontrolably in tears as he spoke of indignity and inhuman behavior to the point that I had my face buried in my hands.  I was upset further knowing that this agonizing story could have been retold by countless others who faced illness during the time when no one knew what to do and so few even cared.  Immediately following came the scene with Dr. Brookner.  Paralyzed from polio at an early age, she confronts from her wheelchair a government agent in charge of funding, facing rejection of funds for her medical research while other less deserving organizations receive it.  In what might be the dramatic performance of the season Ellen Barkin blazes with anger and determination as she runs down a laundry list of lies, homophobia, and lack of humanity and common decency, attempting to bring rational thinking to a system that cares very little for the plight of suffering, ill homosexual men.  She builds this monologue to a fever pitch and sustains it for minutes, ultimately receiving an ovation from the audience more common to opera divas or big musical numbers, literally stopping the show cold.

As we walked out of the performance there was a man handing out flyers saying "This is a message from Larry Kramer."  I would like to share a few of the things that this flyer said:

1)  Please know that AIDS is a worldwide plague.
2)  Please know that no country in the world, including this one, especially this one, has ever called it a plague, or acknowledged is as a plague, or dealt with it as a plague.
3)  Please know that here in America case numbers continue to rise in every category.  In much of the rest of the world-Russia, India, Southeast Asia, Africa-the numbers of the infected and the drying are so grotesquely high they are rarely acknowledged.

And the most important to me:

Please know that the world has suffered at the very least some 75 million infections and 35 MILLION DEATHS.  When the action of this play that you have just seen begins, there were 41.

My note:  The Black Plague of Europe in the late 1300's was estimated to kill between 75 and 100 million people and it took the population 150 years to recover.

I want to dedicate this post to Bill, Keil, and Richard, my good friends who did not live long enough to have this experience with me, but who live in my heart and always will be with me.  God bless you.



  1. Stephen, this was nothing short of stupendous. You have taken me back to the those I have known and lost too soon, to my anger and pain and to even now, as I am older and maybe more jaded, my lack of passion and my acceptance of this horrible plague on humanity. Thank you for sharing. I read with tears in my eyes, but I write this with a fire in my soul. Time to get up off the couch and back into the streets. Time to say we are still here, we are still queer, and we are not going to take it anymore.

  2. Wayne thank you for your comments. When I saw this I was reminded that relatively little has been done in all these years to seriously address HIV. My entire life in New York has been in the shadow of this plague. It grieves me to think that people are now complacent, believing that just because there are new medications people still do not die from AIDS, and that pharmaceutical companies are more interested in the profits they make than looking for a cure. While there are many people still out there fighting the numbers are not commensurate with the growing number of those infected. Yes it is time to renew our commitment to funding and finding a cure as well as educating those who most need it to avoid future infections. After all these years there is still no national government supported organization in charge of HIV/AIDS - not to find a cure, not to educate, not to prevent...nothing. One other comment from Larry Kramer's message is worth repeating here:

    "Please know that after all this time the amount of money being spent to find a cure is still miniscule, still almost invisible, still impossible to locate in any national health budget, and still totally uncoordinated."