Author Larry Kramer wrote The Normal Heart as a clarion call about the then-mysterious AIDS virus. Premiering in 1985, the play was a lightning bolt into the collective consciousness of both the gay community and the rest of the world. Although the AIDS crisis had been going on for a few years at that point, little was accurately known about the disease, its transmission, and its effects. All that was widely known, really, was that people were dying.
The play dramatizes the fight for clarity and action through the character of Ned Weeks (based roughly on Kramer himself). Weeks is discovering that a disproportionate number of his fellow gay friends are dying. His attempts to bring knowledge of the crisis to society at large encounter resistance, both from within the gay community and without.
Some people, when faced with the idea that there was "some disease" out there, preferred the "ignorance is bliss" strategy. Others were scared that simple contact, or even drinking from the same cup, would transfer a death sentence upon someone. And unfortunately, given the political climate of the time, a great many more considered AIDS a "religious retribution" against a group of people they considered "ungodly". Of course, none of these were useful in the least (let alone accurate), but that begs the question "What would help?"
Finding that strategy, bringing truth to the fight, and somehow helping the people around him. These things are the basis for Kramer's play. And it's a fight that's still going on to this day. As director of this week's production at Noce, David VanCleave feels the clarion call of The Normal Heart is still a necessary one.
"It's easy to think that the fight against AIDS is over. With the current medications available for both HIV+ and HIV- negative individuals, AIDS is no longer than death sentence it was when our show takes place in 1981-1984."
"But, according to the CDC, close to 40,000 people are infected with HIV each year," David continues. "An estimated 13% of these people do not know that they are infected. So, the fight continues. More work must be done to find a cure, and more work needs to be done to educate so that everyone knows their status."
"With a new administration taking office on our opening day, who knows what the fight against AIDS will look like in America in 2017. We hope this play serves as a reminder that the fight is far from over."
Reality vs. Drama
Of course, this play isn't a documentary. There's a balancing act between just shoveling information and creating a dramatic presentation. As director, VanCleave has to weigh the presentation of facts against the emotions of the characters.
"We have a responsibility to adequately portray the AIDS crisis at that time--we've been doing a lot of research of various statistics and check-in points throughout the show. That has helped us immensely since our show covers over 3 years. Knowing the key information for each month has helped shape our characters and better understand their individual arcs."
"On another hand, the character of Ned is based on author Larry Kramer. There are references to Ned attempting suicide at Yale and writing a novel that pissed off the gay community--both of these things were Larry's experiences. It's impossible to ignore the similarities. Many other characters are based on real life friends of Larry. We've done a bit of research to how their stories end, but we're trying to let the script inform us more than any other outside source of Larry Kramer's life. For us, the character development and relationship in our text is the most important."
And It Continues
Ultimately, The Normal Heart is about the beginning of battles. Whether those battles are for life itself, for love, for knowledge, for expression... the currency of those battles is passion. And VanCleave recognizes that currency.
"I think it's difficult not to be passionate about this project. The script is so beautiful and politically charged, it's difficult to study it and not feel so passionate."
Even the title of The Normal Heart comes from passion. It's taken from a poem by W.H. Auden called "September 1, 1939."
"What mad Nijinsky wrote
Is true of the normal heart
…We must love one another or die."
The Normal Heart opens at Noce Backstage on Friday January 20. Tickets are available at the Noce Jazz/Cabaret website. Seating is limited, so get your tickets quickly!