I never saw the original 1985 play “The Normal Heart.” At that run at the Joseph Papp theatre, Joel Grey (who now directs the current play with George C. Wolfe) played the confrontational Ned Weeks, the protagonist. Its revival, which I recently saw, was voted “best” on Broadway at this year’s Tonys, and stars Joe Mantello of “Angels of America” fame as Ned Weeks, a.k.a. Larry Kramer, Normal Heart’s author. (See some of the moving awards acceptance speeches at the end of this post.) This revival closes on Broadway today (7/10/11) after a glorious 12-week limited run. I hope it’ll come back someday soon.
What’s Eating Larry Kramer?
Kramer, in real life, and portrayed on the stage, is a bristly Gay Rights activist from the 1980’s, who, with his gay friends, are focused on raising awareness about an unidentifiable disease which is killing off their friends. The time is 1981-84 during the rise of the HIV/AIDS crisis before the development of antiretroviral drugs. It’s the swinging 80’s when casual sex was rampant in the baths and discos that many gay men frequented.
Weeks’s loud efforts are met with indifference by the press and Mayor Koch during this calamitous era when this mysterious disease was known as a “gay plague.” To make matters worse, there is infighting among the closeted members of Week’s grass-roots organization which later became The Gay Men’s Health Crisis.
In the play, Kramer’s live-in lover, the closeted New York Times writer Felix Turner, dies of Kaposi’s sarcoma, a once-rare form of cancer, as a harbinger of HIV. Turner, like other cast members, is a patient of Dr. Linda Laubenstein, a.k.a. “Emma” played by Ellen Barkin who won a Tony for this debut stage role. She is as frustrated as Weeks is and cannot get funding for this mysterious disease that has her baffled and advocating abstinence. According to Kramer, but not stated in the play, ex-President Ronald Reagan did not publicly utter the word “AIDS” for seven years.
The Grim Reaper is Busy
When the play starts, there are forty-one AIDS-related deaths on the defining white brick wall of the stage. It records he history in raised letters, like Braille, of the AIDS disease. By the play’s end, the numbers have mushroomed and can no longer be contained on the stage; they have insidiously crept beyond the stage’s boundaries.
Young Gay Audiences Don’t Know From ’80s Plague
Powerful, intense, with good acting and writing, this play moved the audiences to tears and standing ovations. The young gay couple next to me did not know of the political scene of the 80’s and the beginning days of this plague; it was an eye-opener. They had grown up in a more complacent world where HIV was not considered a death sentence, but could be handled with a cocktail of drugs, protease inhibitors.
30 Years Later, Still an Uphill Battle
Yet, this year marks thirty years since the discovery of the first case of AIDS that took more than a quarter-of-a-million lives. There is still no cure. The money spent on AIDS is still miniscule considering there have been 35 million deaths and seventy-five million infections world-wide. The Centers for Disease Control Aid’s Prevention Center states that the majority of the estimated 56,000 new H.I.V. infections that occur each year are transmitted by those who are unaware of their infection. (New York Times, June 28, 2011). Shouldn’t we be paying more attention to this horrible disease and, like Larry Kramer, crusade for more funding and education?
Have YOU spoken to your child about HIV/AIDS and safe sex?
Following, some moving acceptance speeches from the Normal Heart winners at this year’s Tony Awards:
When Your Child Is Gay: What You Need To Know
For more detailed advice, see book, co-authored with a mother of a gay son and a psychiatrist, Jonathan L. Tobkes, M.D.