The first production of "The Normal Heart" opened in 1985 for a record run at The Public Theater. Drawn from the years between 1981 and 1984, it is an autobiography of activism in the midst of a new disease that inexplicably began killing once-healthy young men. It is thick with politics, heartbreak, and fear.
Last Thursday, 26 years later -- and with approximately 33.3 million people worldwide living with HIV -- the production made its Broadway debut.
At the center of the story is Ned Weeks (based on the playwright, Larry Kramer) the founder of an AIDS activist organization (based on Gay Men’s Health Crisis) from which he is expelled because of his short temper and hostility.
The play opens at the dawn of the AIDS crisis, when the disease was a mumbling terror in the community of gay men, a sudden death sentence with no medical explanation. Weeks (played by Joe Mantello) becomes quickly mired in the inexplicable deaths of those close to him. Furious at the lack of information, he organizes. Here lies one theme of the play: one must keep fighting, no matter how poor one's reputation might become, how peculiar one's tactics or how many friends one might lose.
As did Kramer, Ned fights Mayor Ed Koch to have him acknowledge the disease; he fights the New York Times to have them cover it; and he fights the medical establishment to have them treat it. He fights with friends, colleagues, and acquaintances who do their best to continue living lives of sexual caprice in spite of so many terrible, nebulous warnings. He makes enemies.
It is not a wholly flattering depiction on the part of Larry Kramer: he draws Ned as an organizer and combatant, but also a name-caller and a hot head.
Reviews of the 1985 show questioned the level of activism in the play -- whether the characters were cutouts serving an agenda rather than a plot. Frank Rich, for the Times, described some of those scenes more heavily steeped in the politics of organization as resembling, "a parochial legal brief designed to defend its protagonist against his political critics."
Early productions may well have played that way, but The Normal Heart of 1985 was a very different story from the 2011 production, and certainly did not have half as powerful a cast. Today, the leaders of nearly every organization challenged in the script have been replaced many times over, and those lines that maybe once reached audiences and critics as hyperbolic or hysterical now ache with prophecy.
Ned Weeks is a ranter, a geyser of statistics and evidence, of legal questions and well-worked debate. It's hard to breathe life into some of these monologues, these massive tirades. But Mantello seems to understand that what the audience needs here is not just to listen to every fact listed. He turns lecture into theater and makes us understand why it is Ned fights the way he does. One can portray a certain dogmatism without being dogmatic.
These were the years when no one knew why they were dying. No one knew how AIDS was transmitted -- if it was sexual or not, if it could be transferred by a cough, or a sneeze, or a kiss. When Ned holds his dying lover in his arms, all his ranting at authorities, his name-calling and anger make sense.
On the night of the play's debut, the crowd was not a knot of young activists in t-shirts and jeans. They were finely dressed, young and old. Many men wore handsome sport coats and glasses, accompanied by lovers and friends. There was an immense warmth at intermission, a chatty conviviality, pats on shoulders, laughter that faded only when the lights went down for the second act.
From the last row of The Golden Theater, Larry Kramer, seventy-five years old and dressed in black, listened to his audience. Soon, sniffing had become weeping. One woman just a few seats in front of the playwright broke down in tears. For the curtain call, he took the stage before an audience already on its feet.
What had once been a polemical treatise had become something more. After two and a half decades, the audience had the ability to see what the production could accomplish theatrically, not just politically.