Seeing the Broadway revival of Larry Kramer’s landmark AIDS play, The Normal Heart, prompted me to think again about activist theatre and how it might effectively communicate its consciousness-changing intent in popular mainstream forums. First performed at the Public Theatre in 1985, when the AIDS crisis was just beginning, the play’s furious indictment of government and community inaction when intervention could have made a difference sounds just as relevant 25 years later.
Much has changed since Kramer first pilloried closeted gay men and indifferent government officials for their refusal to publicize the disease and early transmission theories to the community who could have most benefited. The cocktail of protease inhibitors now makes HIV, for some people, a chronic, rather than an absolutely fatal virus. Clear information about how it’s transmitted has made safe sex practices the lingua franca of most western sexual cultures since the 1990s.
But much still remains the same vis-à-vis the pandemic, which lends Kramer’s play its continued relevance. Federal government officials still short-change HIV/AIDS research; the medications that effectively forestall the virus’s progress remain prohibitively expensive; and homophobes who agitate against LGBT civil rights in the U.S. continue to spread lies about HIV/AIDS as divine retribution for a morally corrupt society.
The Normal Heart’s directors Joel Grey and George C. Wolfe have crafted a crystal clear rendering of Kramer’s play, with a talented cast whose performances are empathetic, careful, and emotionally powerful. Grey and Wolfe focus on the interactions among the characters rather than creating spectacle, suggesting locales with simple set pieces and props that specify the historical moment without distracting from the narrative’s momentum or import.
Inside the proscenium’s frame, scenic designer David Rockwell creates a slightly askew white box set, the walls of which, if you look closely, are imprinted with white-on-white dates of newspaper articles, the names of hospitals, and other locations and facts. This information ghosts the scene, grounding the production in a stark historical reality.
Grey and Wolfe adopt a documentary-style approach throughout, projecting location titles above the proscenium as the scenes shift from place to place: Ned Week’s apartment; the headquarters of what becomes the Gay Men’s Health Crisis (GMHC); the mayor’s office and other locales.
Scenes in Dr. Emma Brookner’s office, for example, are staged with one rolling gurney to represent her examination table; in the GMHC office, a white board and the flyers the men fold signal their activist labor. In Ned’s apartment, where he lives with his lover, Felix, the two men share ice cream and their thoughts sitting downstage center on large floor pillows, isolated in a pool of light that creates an intimate mood.
The schematic setting and evocative set pieces subtly suggest that the play’s themes span generations. Disco music plays as the first scene opens (Donna Summer’s 1979 hit “Bad Girls”) and the costumes (by designer Martin Pakledinaz) are cut in a generally ‘80s style. But the production feels and looks intentionally timeless, even though it details a specific historical moment.
Ned Weeks (played with power and insight by Joe Mantello) stands in for Kramer in this autobiographical story, as a gay man whose community is suddenly decimated by a disease no one can name or explain. With a writer’s desire for knowledge and redress, Weeks forms an activist collective that seeks information and widespread mobilization.
Weeks meets Dr. Brookner (beautifully played by Ellen Barkin), a physician who’s among the first to suspect how the virus is transmitted among her gay male patients. When Brookner insists that gay men should stop having sex to arrest the course of the disease, Weeks is the only one willing to act on her injunction. At a time when gay male culture celebrated the creative sexual expression of its community, being told to stop having sex was like being told to return to pre-Stonewall repression.
But Weeks persists, alienating even his fellow activists with his anti-sex screed and his confrontational style. He creates a complex political calculus in which he enjoins his community to stop the practices that in many ways define them while he inveighs against gay men in positions of power who refuse to be open about their sexual identity.
The production tautly illustrates the costs of activists’ fear and government inaction. Grey and Wolfe and the actors adopt neo-Brechtian performance strategies gilded with the emotion of psychological realism to deliver their powerfully instructive history lesson. For instance, partway through the production, the actors who aren’t performing in a scene stand or sit around the stage’s half-lit perimeter and look on as silent witnesses to the other characters and their collective history.
And in between scenes, the names of the dead are projected in a list that increases exponentially as the story continues. The names grow from 20 or so to long lines of columns that extend around the white walls of the stage and spill into the house. The device offers a moving reminder of how a disease turned into a pandemic, and serves as a metaphor for the cost of inaction and inattention from those who might have stopped its spread.
The wall of names is reminiscent of other memorial projects, including the Names Project—a traveling display of the AIDS Memorial Quilt composed of panels stitched memory of those who died of HIV/AIDS—and even Maya Lin’s Viet Nam Veterans Memorial in Washington. Like these, the production’s projections of names of the dead is a simple, powerful remembrance of the absent presence of people no longer able to represent themselves, but whose deaths must be enumerated so that they aren’t in vain.
In addition to this piercing, presentational theatrical style and its political commentary, The Normal Heart is filled with fiery anger and more subtle, desperate emotional concern and caring. The cast plays to spectators’ emotions alongside our intellect, never letting us forget that the people whose activism or inaction we’re witnessing lived and (many) died for this cause.
Joe Mantello is astonishing as Weeks, the intellectual Jewish Yale graduate who at first bemoans his inability to maintain a close relationship. When his friends start dying of a mysterious syndrome, he springs into action, forming an activist group that will become Gay Men’s Health Crisis, and presses city officials to communicate word of the disease to New York’s vulnerable gay male population.
When Ned and his friends meet with closeted administrators and politicians, Weeks’s incendiary accusations and bitter recriminations horrify his friends and alienate the people best positioned to help. But Weeks won’t back down. Mantello plays him as spitting mad, with a consuming, furious commitment to an urgent cause.
Ned also urges gay men at the Times to write about what’s happening to their community, and flies into rages when the paltry news coverage appears buried in the paper. He meets Felix Turner (John Benjamin Hickey), a closeted gay Times style journalist, with whom Ned spars as he agitates for coverage and attention, then eventually begins an intimate relationship.
Ned’s relationship with Felix is cut short when Felix contracts HIV. Ned’s crusade becomes that much more personal, as Felix is the first man with whom Weeks has been able to sustain an emotional, as well as intellectual and physical, connection.
Hickey is lovely as the quieter, more measured Felix. Mantello and Hickey’s scenes together establish the complicated stakes of being a gay man at a time when American culture was much less liberal and accepting, when private homes or public baths were the only places in which you could express a love that was still largely forbidden.
Felix meets Ned’s wealthy, straight, lawyer brother, Ben (a sober Mark Harelik), for the first time when he visits Ben to see about his will, just before Felix’s death from AIDS. Ben’s fear of handling the piece of paper Felix gives him outlining the distribution of his estate palpably reminds us that not so long ago, people’s ignorance about how the virus is transmitted made gay men public pariahs.
Kramer’s play recalls that in the mid-‘80s, gay men were still considered pathological in American society, despite nearly two decades of post-Stonewall political advocacy. Ben tries to be sympathetic, but it’s clear that he struggles to accept Ned’s gay identity. And once AIDS seeps into public consciousness, like other straight people at the time, Ben’s fear of contagion, though it embarrasses him, makes him afraid of physical contact.
As Felix deteriorates from the virus, Hickey illustrates his wasting by pulling his cheeks together into a gaunt visage, using nothing but physical transformation to convey the disease’s ravages. Emma, who’s cared for both of them, marries Ned and Felix at Felix’s hospital bed. She declares indignantly that since the hospital is “hers,” she has the power to give them this final blessing in the face of an unsparing disease that’s robbed Felix of his dignity and finally, his life. Her flouting of conservative public policy rings with meaning, now that LGBT activism has moved from HIV/AIDS to same-sex marriage as its most visible cause.
As Emma leads Ned and Felix through their marriage vows, black screens descend over the set’s otherwise white walls. Hickey and Mantello stand beside Barkin, who sits in Emma’s wheelchair. Grey and Wolfe direct the scene as though Felix is lying in his hospital bed and Ned hovers beside him, although both actors stand. After Felix says “I do” with his dying breath, Hickey’s head drops back to indicate his character’s demise. Mantello screams Ned’s “I do” into Hickey’s ear, desperate for Felix to know that he sealed their union.
The wrenching scene illustrates the defiance of those furious at gay men’s fatal disenfranchisement. Playing it vertically in a more presentational style lets spectators feel the scene’s grief and visually empowers Felix and Ned, despite the loss that floods the moment. Hickey stands with his head laid back through the rest of the scene, a physical testament to the needless death of his character and so many like him.
Barkin is remarkable as Emma, transforming herself from the sylph-like angst-ridden woman of much of her film work to a fierce, crusading physician who’s among the first to recognize the prevalence of what was then called GRID—Gay-Related Immune Deficiency—in her patients. She incites Ned to action, insisting that the only way to stop the virus is to prevent men from having sex. Barkin’s exacting compassion plays beautifully into Mantello’s fury and rage.
Emma has survived her own virus, the polio that’s left her using an electric wheelchair. Her chair is outfitted with a pouch in which she holds her charts and stethoscope. She wheels in and out of her scenes to examine her patients, then backs up to watch the others from the sidelines.
Emma becomes the female face of medical activism, never succumbing to pity but always insisting that Ned and his friends fight, even as she counts more and more of her patients among the dead. With a New York accent and a blazing countenance, Barkin makes Emma a compact, forceful presence.
Along with the medical establishment and the government, Kramer indicts his fellow activists, who chose polite, accommodationist rhetoric instead of Ned’s/Kramer’s accusatory tactics. The handsome, straight-acting Bruce Niles (Lee Pace) becomes GMHC’s president once Ben helps them incorporate as a non-profit. But Bruce refuses to adopt Ned’s confrontational style and finally supports Ned’s ouster from the board.
When Bruce reads to Ned the statement severing him from the organization Ned helped found, the searing moment is a Brechtian gestus of history, in which a more liberal political path was chosen over the more radical. Bruce’s antipathy for Weeks appears, in retrospect, as internalized homophobia. But The Normal Heart finds sympathy for Bruce and his compatriots even as Ned vilifies them. The production clarifies that the choice between a liberal practice of working from within established channels and a radical proselytizing from outside was already stark at the pandemic’s beginning.
Grey and Wolfe craft each scene with care and compassion. The clarity and simplicity of their direction leaves room for Ned’s oceanic emotion, which Mantello plays with agonizing power. His fearless, full-hearted performance communicates the frustration of looking for information in an era of fear and ignorance while it signals a contemporary understanding of the cost of inaction. Mantello’s performance is a requiem, an elegy to all those who died before knowledge could save them.
The directors also keep the scenes moving, pacing the evening so that the play’s heightened emotions don’t exhaust spectators prematurely. The production’s movement also evokes the speed with which history happens to the characters; the audience can feel their palpable shock at how fast they lose their friends and lovers.
The supporting cast forms a deeply-felt community of men whipped about by events they can neither understand nor stop. Jim Parsons (of television’s The Big Bang Theory) is lovely as Tommy Boatwright, his southern twang bringing special warmth to his expressions of support and love for friends who are mysteriously dying faster than he can fathom. Luke MacFarlane (the out actor who plays Scotty on television’s Brothers and Sisters) is wonderful as Craig Donner, one of the first of this circle of friends to die of the disease.
Patrick Breen (Next Fall) as Mickey Marcus and Lee Pace (television’s Pushing Daisies) as Bruce, are both pitch-perfect in roles that require them to demonstrate fear, resilience, and an unwillingness to be as radical as Weeks insists.
The play’s moving power comes from what we now know about HIV/AIDS and its progress, and how our knowledge lets us share Weeks’s frustration and fury over the refusal of city officials to help. Although they’re never spoken here, the ACT-UP watchwords “Silence = Death” resound through The Normal Heart. The play and the production illustrate why those words so powerfully describe the wages of inaction and the consequences of being afraid to clamor for life.
Mounting this revival in 2011, when more people are living with HIV/AIDS instead of dying from it—if they’re privileged enough to afford the medications that prolong one’s life—makes The Normal Heart that much more poignant and meaningful as a slice of recent past in which the gay male community wasn’t so lucky. For those in the audience who didn’t live through the earliest days of the pandemic, the production beautifully illuminates what it meant to be an activist when lives were literally hanging in the balance.
Mantello as Ned provides a portrait of an activist rarely seen on mainstream stages. He completely evokes the anger of those who chose not to be nice and complacent and who refused to play a political game whose rules placed the dying at a distinct disadvantage. Weeks wouldn’t play by anyone’s rules, but his ad hominem attacks and enormous fury make him a difficult hero.
It’s hard to empathize with a man who makes himself so unlikable to advance his cause. But Mantello finds the layers in Weeks. He creates a human being instead of a strident mouthpiece and embodies Ned’s humanity and vulnerability alongside his strength.
Mantello and Hickey are the cast’s elder statesmen. Both performed in iconic gay American plays of the 90s. Ned Weeks could be an early prototype for Angels in America’s Louis Ironson, the other verbal, emotionally conflicted, smart Jewish gay man Mantello played on Broadway. But 20 years later, in a play that’s more a political placard than a gay fantasia, Mantello’s performance feels more personal, more emotional, and if it’s possible, even more compelling.
When he undresses to be examined by Dr. Brookner early in the play, it’s clear that Mantello’s middle-aged body has fleshed out from the wiry exclamation point that drew Louis’s energy in Angels. The presence of the actor’s body, ghosted by its own stage history, is very moving in The Normal Heart.
Likewise, Hickey, who performed as one of the central characters in the 1995 Broadway premiere of Terrence McNally’s landmark gay drama Love! Valour! Compassion!—which Mantello directed—is older now. But the history of his own performance in a significant gay American drama haunts his presence here, too.
Playing lovers, Hickey and Mantello (who are both openly gay—although I wonder why I feel compelled to even mention that) have chemistry that adds depth and emotion to their relationship and makes Felix’s death unspeakably painful.
The play seems personal for the supporting actors, too, as they shift between performing in role and witnessing from the sidelines as the action continues. They each provide an empathetic, real, and moving presence that mirrors the audience’s involvement and that builds a sense of community that extends from the stage far into the theatre.
Kramer’s autobiographical narrative clearly reaches contemporary audiences. I saw the production with an audience predominated by those who looked like white gay men, mixed with obviously straight couples, women, people of color, and people whose ages seemed to span generations. Much of the audience sobbed openly through the play.
The Normal Heart might be mainstream political theatre—yes, Broadway tickets aren’t cheap; indeed, casting familiar television and film actors ensures audience attention; and sure, the number of Tony Award nominations the production has received (five) gives it credibility in ways that community-based political theatre struggles to achieve. (The Normal Heart is nominated for Best Revival of a Play; Best Performance by an Actor in a Leading Role in a Play, for Mantello; Best Performance by an Actor in a Featured Role in a Play, for Hickey; Best Performance by an Actress in a Featured role in a Play, for Barkin; and Best Direction of a Play, for Grey and Wolfe.)
But this production’s extensive media coverage also refocuses attention on HIV/AIDS. And Kramer’s activism outside the theatre hammers home the on-going crisis and the virus’s real effects not just on the gay male community but on those vulnerable to and suffering from the pandemic world-wide.
Continuing his storied attempt to inspire people to action and not just to feel emotion, Kramer stood outside the theatre during the production’s first performances, handing spectators a personal letter titled “Please Know.” Although Kramer wasn’t present the evening I saw the play, a young man with a stack of the letters handed them out as fast as people would take them.
Kramer’s letter reminds audiences that the play’s events actually happened. He relates that many of the actual people he wrote as characters have died of AIDS, and that many of the actors in the original production have also passed away from the virus. He reminds us that no cure exists for HIV/AIDS; that the “amount of money being spent to find a cure is still miniscule, still almost invisible”; that AIDS is a worldwide plague; and that “no country in the world . . . has ever . . . dealt with it as a plague.”
Kramer’s letter denounces pharmaceutical companies as “evil and greedy”; accuses American presidents since the 1980s of not saying or doing anything to address the pandemic; and decries the 35 million (to date) needless deaths that he attributes to political inaction and corporate avarice.
Distributing this letter after performances is savvy activism, since the powerful production inspires in spectators a desire to know more. Our emotions raw from what we’ve witnessed, our hearts (hopefully) opened to the suffering we’ve just seen, we leave the theatre sharing Kramer’s outrage.
Kramer’s letter and his play remind us of the devastation HIV/AIDS continues to wreak and urges us to protest inaction against the pandemic at all levels of political life.
The Feminist Spectator
The Normal Heart, The Golden Theatre, Broadway, May 8, 2011.