In April 1985, “The Normal Heart” landed Off Broadway with the force of a grenade.
This fiercely polemical play, about a writer urgently trying to draw attention to the incipient AIDS epidemic, was lobbed by writer-activist Larry Kramer as the number of gay men and others diagnosed with Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome (AIDS) was swiftly rising. So was the death toll from what seemed like an unstoppable plague, with no cure in sight.
As Kramer’s broadside indicates, Americans at the time knew little about this so-called “gay cancer” — how it was transmitted, who it afflicted (people of all sexual orientations), what it entailed. And federal funding for medical research on it was still very limited.
But several related events in that year caught national attention. Movie star Rock Hudson died of the disease. Ryan White, a young hemophiliac with AIDS, was barred from public school and became a spokesman for those who contracted the disease via blood transfusions.
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And Kramer pressed his case through work with the Gay Men’s Health Crisis organization, and his combative, attention-grabbing play “The Normal Heart” — the first major American drama (with many to follow) to address AIDS.
Lately the work is back in the spotlight. Strawberry Theatre Workshop is, under the direction of Sheila Daniels, presenting it in a run that starts Thursday at the Erickson Theatre Off Broadway. (The last Seattle production of note was at Theater Schmeater in 2000.)
A hit 2011 Broadway revival bagged several Tony Awards. Numerous regional theaters are mounting “The Normal Heart.” A film version, with Mark Ruffalo and Julia Roberts, is scheduled to debut on HBO later this year.
Strawberry Theatre Workshop artistic director Greg Carter says he’s been wanting to stage the play for a long while. But he wondered if Kramer’s autobiographical tale of one man’s rage over governmental and media neglect of AIDS, and apathy in the gay community about it, would seem dated now.
After all, effective treatment is available to those with AIDS and HIV, which causes it. About 1.1 million Americans are living with AIDS/HIV, and it’s no longer a mystery or a death sentence.
Rereading the script, Carter found it “yes, very preachy, but it’s also a really good play that holds up. There’s nothing in it I would cut. Kramer never makes the same point twice. I want our theater to always do plays that start conversations in the community. This one can.”
Actor and marketing executive Stephen Black is a big supporter of the production, and a member of the cast.
“I saw the New York revival and it broke my heart,” Black says. “I thought of all the friends I lost to AIDS, all the funerals I attended.”
The play isn’t just old news, he asserts: It touches on gay marriage, the health-care gap in the U.S. and other “current themes.” A board member of Seattle’s nonprofit Lifelong AIDS Alliance, which provides many services to those with HIV/AIDS, he hopes the Seattle staging calls attention to the ongoing need for public awareness and prevention of the condition. He’s especially concerned about younger people who don’t use protection against sexual transmission and know little about the history of the global pandemic and its ravages.
“They think this is no worse than hepatitis. But it is worse, much worse, ” he says.
As of 2012 there were roughly 11.000 people in Washington state with HIV/AIDS, according to state Department of Health figures. And more than 500 new cases are diagnosed yearly — many of them in Seattle/King County residents, in the 19-to-39 age group.
Lifelong AIDS Alliance CEO Randy Russell agreed to have his organization be a sponsor of “The Normal Heart.” Through post-show talks and other activities, he hopes the show will be an effective education and outreach vehicle.
Russell concurs that “the most common misperception is that HIV/AIDS is ‘over’ or ‘no big deal’ — that you can just take a pill and everything will be fine. While the benefits of the technological and medical advancements … are undeniably wonderful, this is still a debilitating and costly disease for those who don’t have access to treatment and care. “
The drug regimen to stay well, he notes, can cost $30,000 per year.
One thing that hasn’t changed, adds Russell, is that “those who are most impacted by, and most at risk for, HIV are still individuals and groups who are largely marginalized and stigmatized by society: gay/bi men, people of color, people living in poverty and/or homelessness, and people living with mental-health or substance-abuse issues.”
Misha Berson: firstname.lastname@example.org