The first medical cases of the disease we now know is caused by HIV were first described thirty years ago. There is an entire generation of people who have grown up since then who have no idea of the struggles to recognize this dangerous modern-day plague, to work through the stereotypes and stigmas associated with it and to recognize that, even now, HIV/AIDS is a world-wide health crisis. Playwright Larry Kramer wrote an angry cry in the wilderness The Normal Heart in 1985. The play was a raw condemnation of the 1980's establishment's responses to the emerging epidemic equally attacking the medical establishment for its slow response, the government for dismissing the crisis as a white gay male problem and the media for not realizing the rapid spiraling scope of the disease and not giving the crisis the front page coverage it deserved in a more timely fashion. It was through Mr. Kramer's passionate words and the off Broadway production at Joseph Papp's Public Theater that the artistic community started to document the scourge of HIV/AIDS.
The Normal Heart was not the only theatrical work of the time period to address HIV/AIDS. As a matter of fact, one of the reasons that the first time that The Normal Heart appeared on Broadway was in its 2011 Tony Award-winning revival is because another play dealing with the health crisis, William H. Hoffman's As Is premiered during the same 1985 season and a decision was made to keep The Normal Heart in production at the Public which ensured it a longer run. Yet, The Normal Heart is as crucial and relevant to the 21st century audience as it is in 1985. This was no mounting of a period piece where we can safely proclaim that those were the bad old days and the world has come so far that we can look back on those quaint times and be relieved that life is so much better now. It most assuredly is not.
1981. Thirty years ago. Everyone born since then has lived with HIV/AIDS as a reality. For them, HIV/AIDS is no longer the automatic death sentence it was in the 1980's. The stigma that led to the horrific treatment of a dying patient being thrown away with the garbage so vividly described by the character Bruce Niles in The Normal Heart may no longer occur in these supposedly enlightened times. The fear mongering of the 1980's was a time during which the home of the Ray brothers in Florida was burned out of fear that these children would infect their town. It was a time when the television series St. Elsewhere received criticism for deciding to infect Mark Harmon's promiscuous Dr. Robert Caldwell with HIV through heterosexual contact. Today in the American Adventure pavilion at Walt Disney World's EPCOT in the montage of American heroes for the past sixty years is the face of Ryan White. How many of the tourists recognize the young AIDS activist banned from attending his middle school, who put an ordinary face on those who contract the disease, and who died at the young age of 18 in 1990?
The Normal Heart can feel preachy at times. Yet, when those words are preached by activist Ned Weeks it feels perfectly normal given how Mr. Kramer has written the character. The lone female character in the play, the no nonsense Dr. Emma Brookner delivers a rousing condemnation of the complacency of the medical and government bureaucracy whose slow response to the growing crisis is emphasized by the ever growing list of names projected on the walls of the set of this production. In the end of this emotional play, the audience feels shock, anger, despair and a desire for knowledge that was literally handed to the audience attending the Broadway production in flyers, sometimes handed out by Mr. Kramer himself.
When the play closed on Broadway there was hope that a national tour would develop. Yet, in these days when crowd pleasing musicals can easily book theaters from coast to coast it is much harder for plays to receive the same generous touring dates. It is heartening that The Normal Heart is receiving an important run at Washington, DC's Arena Stage through July 29, 2012 and will subsequently be performed in San Francisco's American Conservatory Theater September 13 - October 7, 2012. More importantly a film version will finally reach movie theaters in 2014.
The Normal Heart may depict the history of a past generation's struggle with HIV/AIDS, but it is as important in 2011/2012 as it was in 1985. If you have the opportunity to see this production do so. If you have influence at a theater company to produce your own production of this play try to get it done. The wider the audience for this piece, the better chance that this important part of history will not fade into memory.
The Normal Heart is being performed at Washington DC's Arena Stage through July 29, 2012. For tickets and other performance information please visit www.arenastage.org. The Normal Heart will be performed at San Francisco's American Conservatory Theater September 13 - October 7, 2012. For tickets and other performance information please visit www.act-sf.org. The film of The Normal Heart will be released in 2014. For information on the film please visit imdb.com.