WASHINGTON — Before there was a test, before it had a name and before there was any way to know if AIDS was spread through the air, touch or bodily fluids, there was confusion and denial.
Most politicians and policy makers in the 1980s didn't want to talk about a killer disease that seemed to be affecting gay men. Now 30 years later, the nation's capital is getting its first look at a story recalling those early days of the AIDS crisis and the outrage that turned a group of gay men into activists pushing for information and recognition of the disease.
While Washington has a role in the story, Larry Kramer's prescient 1985 play, "The Normal Heart," is just now being staged here for the first time. The production, fresh from Broadway, coincides with an international AIDS conference that's returning to the U.S. this summer and is expected to draw 20,000 attendees from around the world.
Arena Stage is producing the show, which won the 2011 Tony Award for best revival on Broadway. The new production starring Patrick Breen and Luke MacFarlane of TV's "Brothers & Sisters," runs through July 29 before the show moves to San Francisco's American Conservatory Theater.
The story promises to find an even larger audience in the months and years to come with a planned movie from "Glee" creator Ryan Murphy starring Mark Ruffalo and Julia Roberts.
While set in New York, Washington is the most important city for the play to be seen, as the power center for politics and health policy, Kramer told The Associated Press.
In the play, his ranting alter ego is Ned Weeks who bemoans New York Mayor Ed Koch's apathy, the reluctance of The New York Times to write about AIDS and the refusal of President Ronald Reagan to acknowledge the disease. He also condemns gays for refusing to change their sexual behavior when it began to prove deadly.
Thirty years after Kramer's story, his message is the same, though the audience may have changed. AIDS infection rates continue to rise.
"It's still a plague, it's still raging all over the world, and there's still nobody paying attention to it on an official level," Kramer said, noting the death toll has risen from the hundreds in the early 80s to tens of millions. "Everything in the play came true. So it's now a history play."
The story unfolds in a New York doctor's office in 1981 – before an AIDS epidemic had been declared.
Patients line up to see if they're showing any symptoms. Dr. Emma Brookner, played by Patricia Wettig of TV's "Thirty Something" and "Brothers & Sisters," delivers her best guesses and tough love to counsel patients.
"All I know is this disease is the most insidious killer I've ever seen ...and I think we're seeing only the tip of the iceberg," Emma tells Weeks, urging him to take action.
"Tell gay men to stop having sex," she says.
Weeks retorts: "Do you realize that you are talking about millions of men who have singled out promiscuity to be their principle political agenda?"
Wettig told the AP she wanted to join the cast after seeing "Heart" on Broadway, living in New York in the 1980s and knowing people who died. For her, the story now has "more potency, more power." She said the nation seems ready to hear the story and more people feel a personal connection.
In the play, Weeks, like Kramer, went on to co-found the activist and support group Gay Men's Health Crisis to push politicians, doctors and the media to take AIDS seriously.
Breen, 51, who plays the lead role, said Kramer's play was a wakeup call in 1985 for some of his own friends and may have saved their lives. Many cast members also know friends who died. Each contributed names of people who were lost to be projected among thousands of other names as part of a memorial wall at the play's ending.
"In a way, we are performing in their honor," Breen said. "It becomes the Vietnam Memorial, like any memorial in D.C."
MacFarlane, 32, who broke network television ground on ABC's "Brothers & Sisters" as part of a gay couple who marry and adopt a daughter, said he was struck by how AIDS pushed the gay rights movement to evolve.
"Historically, there seems to have been a shift where gay men learned to love each other in a different way, to take care of each other," he said.
In "The Normal Heart" he plays Felix, who is Weeks' dying lover. When he finds out he's infected, there's still confusion about how the disease is spread or whether he could infect his partner.
"Can we kiss?" Felix asks his doctor.
"I don't know," she says back.
The story also looked ahead to the prospect of gay marriage at a time when that wasn't even on the table, Breen said. Still, Kramer argues for bigger goals and equal rights to help fight the AIDS crisis.
While the District of Columbia is among a handful of states that have since legalized same-sex marriage, "The Normal Heart" is a timely story for Washington. The capital remains a city with one of the highest HIV/AIDS infection rates.
Kramer and the show's producers have invited President Barack Obama and the first lady to see the play at Arena Stage.
"Now that he's come out for gay marriage, he doesn't lose any political capital by coming to see this," the 76-year-old writer and activist said. "He might even gain a little more."
The theater is displaying sections of the AIDS Memorial Quilt in its lobby with a small exhibit on AIDS history from the Smithsonian. It's also hosting community discussions with experts and health professionals each Sunday. And as audiences depart the theater after the show, a letter from Kramer is handed out, detailing the ongoing epidemic.
Broadway producer Daryl Roth shepherded the production to Washington after its award-winning Broadway run when she heard of the world AIDS conference. Roth said she knew it would be the "perfect time" for theater that holds a mirror up to society with a story that still resonates.
"There are a lot of people that – here's a big news flash – that are still homophobic," she said. "And you know, people came to see this play, and I know minds were changed."
Arena Stage: http://www.arenastage.org/
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