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'The Normal Heart,' Still Pumping Love And Fury

The Broadway cast of Larry Kramer's <em>The Normal Heart, </em>from left: Lee Pace, Ellen Barkin, Wayne Alan Wilcox, Patrick Breen, Jim Parsons, Joe Mantello, John Benjamin Hickey, Luke Macfarlane, Richard Topol and Mark Harelik.
Joan Marcus
The Broadway cast of Larry Kramer's The Normal Heart, from left: Lee Pace, Ellen Barkin, Wayne Alan Wilcox, Patrick Breen, Jim Parsons, Joe Mantello, John Benjamin Hickey, Luke Macfarlane, Richard Topol and Mark Harelik.

This story contains language that some may find offensive.

When it premiered in 1985, Larry Kramer's play The Normal Heart seemed ripped from the headlines. A thinly veiled autobiographical work, it dealt with the early days of the AIDS crisis and elicited both admiration and controversy.

Now, a new revival has opened on Broadway to rave reviews and five Tony Award nominations. Audiences who attend the show spend 2 1/2 hours confronted by Ned Weeks, an HIV-awareness advocate and a fictional version of Kramer, doggedly telling anybody and everybody that attention must be paid to a growing health problem. And a couple of nights a week, as they exit the theater, some of those audience members find themselves face to face with the real Kramer.

Out on the sidewalk in front of the theater, Kramer distributes a letter to let people know that the AIDS crisis is not a thing of the past.

"I love how Larry Kramer is so many things, but nostalgia is one thing he's not," says actor John Benjamin Hickey, who won a Tony nomination for his portrayal of Ned's closeted lover Felix in The Normal Heart. "Larry is about right now. I mean, yes, his play is about a period of time in the past — not-so-distant past — but I just love that his rabble-rousing is as alive, as important, as badass today, as it was back then."

The play, which first played Off-Broadway at New York's Public Theater, is now making its Broadway debut in the Golden Theatre. But George C. Wolfe — the Tony-nominated co-director of the play (along with Broadway veteran Joel Grey) — says The Normal Heart feels like anything but a period piece. It opens with the line, "I know something's wrong," and Wolfe says he wanted to convey the urgency and terror of a killer that hasn't yet been identified.

"It's pre-AIDS," Wolfe says. "It's a horror movie. And that's what I kept telling the actors. It's a horror movie. You wake up one day and an invisible monster that you cannot see is killing people. And you don't have weapons to stop it."

Ellen Barkin, another Tony nominee, makes her Broadway debut in the play as Dr. Emma Brookner, a character based on one of the doctors who first started treating gay men who were mysteriously dying.

Dr. Linda Laubenstein, says Barkin, "was a hematologist/oncologist at NYU [who], at the very beginning, I think around '79 or '80, said, 'This is not right. And this is not going to be good.' "

As Barkin's Dr. Brookner tells Ned, Kramer's alter ego, sex in this atmosphere meant death — a message many didn't want to hear. But Kramer, through Ned, told them anyway, alienating a lot of people along the way. The Normal Heart unflinchingly looks at how Kramer, and several others in the community, fought to get the mayor's office and the Reagan administration to take the growing plague among gay men seriously, as they dealt with friends and loved ones dying all around them. But Kramer's abrasive ways got him kicked out of the organization he helped found, the Gay Men's Health Crisis.

Kramer says he tried to be as objective as possible about himself as he wrote the play.

"When I wrote down what I had actually done, that's what I had actually done," Kramer says. "And I could see that I could annoy people and be this asshole. But that's who I am, so I wasn't going to romanticize myself."

Kramer's Ned isn't afraid to push potential allies who he believes aren't supportive enough; in the play, Ned angrily condemns the inaction of his straight brother:

"I'm furious with you and with myself and every goddamn doctor who ever told me I'm sick and interfered with my loving a man. I'm just ... I'm trying to understand why nobody wants to hear that we're dying. Why nobody wants to help. Why my own brother doesn't want to help!"

There's plenty to counterbalance Ned's fury. Director Wolfe says much of what makes the play effective is that Kramer has presented characters the audience falls in love with — before you see how AIDS affects all of them.

"One of the brilliant, brilliant, brilliant, brilliant things that the play does is it makes AIDS intimate," Wolfe says. "It makes it so intimate for every single person sitting in the theater."

Twenty-six years after it first opened, The Normal Heartstill contains a moment that anticipates an issue at the center of current national conversation. At the end of the play, there's an unofficial wedding between Ned and his dying lover.

"People say that that's me manipulating the emotions of the play, but that's what happened," Kramer says. "And so that's in the play. And if they think it's too corny, tough s - - -."

Copyright 2020 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Jeff Lunden is a freelance arts reporter and producer whose stories have been heard on NPR's Morning Edition, All Things Considered and Weekend Edition, as well as on other public radio programs.