RARE CANCER SEEN IN 41 HOMOSEXUALS
THE NORMAL HEART
THE FIRST PEOPLE WHO GOT SICK WERE FRIENDS OF MINE. IN THE VILLAGE, YOU COULDN’T WALK DOWN THE STREET WITHOUT RUNNING INTO SOMEBODY WHO SAID: ‘HAVE YOU HEARD ABOUT SO-ANDSO? HE JUST DIED.’ SOMETIMES YOU COULD LEARN ABOUT THREE OR FOUR PEOPLE JUST WALKING THE DOG. … PEOPLE REALLY WERE DYING LIKE FLIES.
IN a recent New York Times profile, the playwright and AIDS activist Larry Kramer recalls what it was like in the city in the early 1980s, at the beginning of the epidemic: “The first people who got sick were friends of mine. In the Village, you couldn’t walk down the street without running into somebody who said: ‘Have you heard about so-andso? He just died.’ Sometimes you could learn about three or four people just walking the dog. … People really were dying like flies.”
This was before HIV was considered a relatively manageable — if still treacherous and extremely expensive — chronic illness. It was before HIV had been identified and before AIDS was even called AIDS. In 1981, doctors did not know what was happening inside the bodies of the sick men crowding ERs and doctors’ waiting rooms. Their maladies seemed to be connected to the immune system, but all the professionals knew for sure was that something was killing gay men at an alarming rate. This was decades before widespread social acceptance of gay rights, when countless average Americans became convinced they could catch AIDS just by touching a gay person — and so it fell to the gay community to raise awareness of this medical crisis. How they began to organize is the subject of Kramer’s play that opened Off-Broadway in 1985 and had a Tony Award-winning revival in 2011. Duchess Dale directs The Normal
Heart at the Santa Fe Playhouse, which opens with a preview performance on Thursday, June 8.
The protagonist, Ned Weeks (played by Hania Stocker), is — like Kramer — an unabashedly in-your-face shouter who believes anger works better than gentle persuasion. He has a history of fighting with friends as well as judging their sexual habits: Ned is a romantic who does not think promiscuity is the key to gay men’s happiness. He is already known for this stance when he co-founds an unnamed organization modeled on the Gay Men’s Health Crisis in the late summer of 1981 to get the attention of city government, media, and the medical community. As the plague gains momentum, a doctor friend — Emma Brookner (Lorri Layle Oliver), who is based on the physician Linda Laubenstein, an early AIDS researcher who was one of the first to recognize the epidemic — advises Ned that men should limit their number of sexual partners as a way to mitigate the spread of the disease. Ned’s peers, however, do not take kindly to his exhortations to stop sleeping with men in bars and bathhouses.
“We have been so oppressed!” a character named Mickey (David McConnell) yells at Ned. “Don’t you remember how it was? ... We were a bunch of funnylooking fellows who grew up in sheer misery and one day we fell into the orgy rooms and we thought we’d found heaven.”
Mickey does not believe that being gay makes him a murderer, which is how he interprets Ned’s point of view. Ned’s finer distinction — not that gay sex kills, but that sex itself might be the method of transmission for a deadly disease — is dismissed because of his brash manner and history of public prudishness. In 1978, Kramer published a novel called Faggots ,in which he excoriated the gay community for its libertine ways. He wrote it as a caustic response to a lover’s unwillingness to have a monogamous relationship with him; today, he and that man, David Webster, are married. The book made Kramer a pariah in the years leading up the AIDS crisis.
Kramer’s play is deceptively complex — all at once a self-justification for his temperamental tactics, a self-congratulation for his legitimately borderlineprophetic vision of how to stop the spread of the disease, an empathetic and honest portrayal of the gay
men who wanted him to advocate differently or at least more quietly, and a very sweet love story, all couched in the author’s ruthless understanding of his own strengths and weaknesses. It also has hints of family drama, since Ned’s troubled but trusting relationship with his older brother is a well-rendered, emotionally impactful aspect of the plot.
Ned’s love interest, Felix, is drawn to him for many of the reasons others push him away. “I identify with that attraction,” said Welde Carmichael, who plays Felix in the Playhouse production. “I think there are people in this world who are difficult — for example, I really like Kanye West, who a lot of people think is this awful tyrant. And he kind of is, but he’s also a truthful person and a truthful artist. The part of Felix I tap into for that is that if we all had 10 percent of the passion that Ned Weeks has, we could all be living on Mars by now. I think Felix understands Ned and is turned on by this person who cares so deeply about making the world a better place. He likes that idealism.”
The Normal Heart serves as an important historical drama that can educate those who are too young to understand what the AIDS crisis was really like. Statistics tell a grim tale: By 1985, well over 5,600 people in the United States had died; in 1986, that number was more than 16,000; in 1993, AIDS took more than 23,400 lives. Carmichael, who is in his early thirties, grew up with an intolerant version of sex education that demonized homosexuality and blamed gay men for AIDS. Others in the cast are not old enough to know a time before condoms were commonplace and LGBTQ issues were covered in the mainstream press. Still others lived in New York in the 1980s and remember what it was like to see their friends die — and then, suddenly, to live, after effective HIV medications became available in the mid-1990s.
“The challenge with it is that there’s almost a complacency about the disease because it has become manageable, and it’s not in the public eye anymore,” Dale said. “The parallels to today’s culture are striking — some of the lines in the play even reference things going on now. Like when Mickey says, ‘They are going to stone us, they are going to persecute us, they are going to cancel our health insurance.’ ”
Before the AIDS crisis, gay men were largely ignored or demonized by much of American society. AIDS galvanized gay communities around the country, and the rallying cry became “silence equals death.” They found their most powerful voices 35 years ago in the midst of a plague, and they are not going back into the closet. “It’s been an honor and a treat to play a character who so deeply believes that men can love men — with an exclamation point!” Carmichael said. “Just going on that journey has been really sweet, and exploring a character who, at the end of the day, really embodies that. Fundamentally, love is an equalizer. And if we can believe that, anything is possible.”
The Normal Heart Preview performance 7:30 p.m. Thursday, June 8; Thursdays-Sundays through June 25 Santa Fe Playhouse, 142 E. De Vargas St., 505-988-4262 $15 preview, then $25 (discounts available); www.santafeplayhouse.org
Gay Pride Parade, New York City, 1983