RARE CANCER SEEN IN 41 HO­MO­SEX­U­ALS

THE NOR­MAL HEART

Pasatiempo - - NEWS - The Nor­mal Heart, — LARRY KRAMER

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.”

de­tails

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

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