Agitation Nation

Larry Kramer's The Normal Heart brings back a time of acting up

Saint Therese of Lisieux, whose Catholic feast day was celebrated October 1, is the patron saint of missionaries, aviators, orphans, tuberculosis patients, and, most recently, of AIDS sufferers, which is fine coincidence for the Public Theatre's production of Larry Kramer's 1985 autobiographical play, The Normal Heart.

The Normal Heart, like autumn, is about transitions. In Kramer's case, it's the transformation of gay America as it headed south out of the 1970s' summer of sex into the winter of AIDS. Then came the muddy spring of building the activist political infrastructure of the Gay Men's Health Crisis, ACT UP, and other organizations that might now seem quaint to queer kids drinking lattes in afterschool meetings of their high school's gay/straight student alliance.

Like Maoist plays pushing the party line hard during the Cultural Revolution, The Normal Heart relentlessly drives home its political and social message that crisis is afoot and a move must be made. It's a "ripped from the pages" kind of play — that is, if the pages happen to be from the San Francisco Chronicle in 1983. But the play's Reagan-era date stamp doesn't preclude current relevance. The recent resurgence of AIDS in the gay community, the appearance of new disease strains, and the growing awareness of the plague's toll on Africa and Asia bring new context for a revisit. With that in mind, reflect on the early days of AIDS in New York City through The Normal Heart's forceful linearity:

McKeever (left), Wells, Strader, and Williford: A "ripped from the pages" kind of play
McKeever (left), Wells, Strader, and Williford: A "ripped from the pages" kind of play

Anxious men sit in a doctor's office waiting to hear the news that they're dying from an unexplained cancer. An agitated writer confronts a closeted New York Times reporter about the newspaper's refusal to cover the strange new disease. The agitated writer begs his loving older brother to back a new organization being built to fight the disease, then has a date with the closeted Times reporter. After finding recruits for his new group, the agitated writer and the reporter (now boyfriend) rest in domestic bliss only to discover that the reporter is showing "the signs." End Act 1.

The agitated writer, of course, represents playwright Kramer himself, the rabble-rousing force behind the Gay Men's Health Crisis, which at the time of its founding made two statements with its bold choice of name — what was happening was happening to gays, and it was a crisis beset by governmental ignorance. In the play's original 1985 New York staging, the Kramer character was played by Brad Midnight Express Davis, who went on, sadly, to die from complications of AIDS in 1991. In the Public Theatre production, the role goes to actor/playwright Michael McKeever, who delivers a strong performance as the angry activist, both in his polemics against then-NYC Mayor Ed Koch as well as his vulnerable tirades about his lover's illness. "I'm afraid to be with him. I'm afraid to be without him," he says of his lover. "I'm afraid the cure won't come in time. I'm afraid of my anger. I'm a terrible leader and a useless lover."

McKeever's work here is powerful. But director Steven Chambers has also assembled an entire cast of equally impressive performances to surround McKeever — Mark Harmon as the activist's reporter lover; Jack Frank Sigman as the activist's straight, sweet brother; Tobin Strader, Scott Wells, and Doug Williford as the funny and diverse gaggle of men stepping up to help found the upstart organization; and Sally Bondi as their doctor/confessor. All of them get a chance to shine and nail their individual speeches of frustration about how the government and their own community are failing them even as they fear for the health of their lovers and themselves.

When watching the play, it's important to remember its original urgency during a vacuum of knowledge and government response, as the "evil" of cancer was quickly being replaced by the "evil" of AIDS, in that heady, Sontag, disease-as-metaphor kind of way. The Normal Heart was the early, raw literary representation of the epidemic's onset. Eventually, other plays and movies with hindsight reflection would replace The Normal Heart as must-see AIDS drama, such as the big screen's Longtime Companion and Tony Kushner's Angels in America. But remember, The Normal Heart was here first.

Some in the gay community say there's a generation gap between those lost through 1980s AIDS decimation and newbies who may now believe that the promise of AIDS drug "cocktails" means they can screw the safe-sex messages and re-create the wild 1970s without recrimination. Regardless, perhaps the most effective demonstration of The Normal Heart's currency is the Public Theatre's set.

The theater has arranged the audience's chairs around a simple platform stage. But hanging from the walls surrounding the audience are borrowed sections of the AIDS quilt, the national Names Project Foundation's memorial tapestry stitched together from tributes to folks who have died. The quilt has just kept growing since its 1987 birth and now stretches out at more than 1.2 million square feet. As the Public Theatre's audience focuses on a slice of the '80s, the faces and mementos embroidered on the panels displayed around them work beautifully, and sorrowfully, to compress them into the play's passion and also into AIDS' ongoing reality.

 
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