The play opens in a hospital waiting room. The setting is 1981 New York City. A strange new disease has begun to spread within the city’s gay community. Forty-one cases have been reported. One by one, young and healthy men are dying, but no one knows the cause. The symptoms start off with simple rashes and swollen glands and end with a complete shutdown of the human immune system. This may sound to you like the plotline of a medical horror film, but in fact, this is the prelude to Larry Kramer’s “The Normal Heart,” an autobiographical play based on the true events that marked the terrifying beginnings of the AIDS pandemic.
Directly from Broadway, “The Normal Heart” opened the American Conservatory Theater’s new season on Sept. 19. The play had originally premiered Off-Broadway at The Public Theater in 1985 — a mere four years after the first cases of what we now know as AIDS were reported in the United States. Nearly 27 years after its world premiere, the production reopened on Broadway in 2011 under the direction of George C. Wolfe and Joel Grey, winning three Tony awards, including “Best Revival of a Play.”
Urgency is key in Kramer’s autobiographical drama, which served both then and now as a desperate cry for help as well as an angry message to those whom attempted to harbor the truth about the epidemic at its roots. Set in a time when the stigma against homosexuality was far from kind, the emergence of a virus that seemed to target only gays added far more fuel to an already burning fire. It isn’t simply the political message in the work that makes it so heart-wrenching and memorable, though. Rather, it is the passion that drives the main protagonist, Ned Weeks (played by the notable Patrick Breen). Weeks, being the exaggerated alter ego of playwright and prominent gay activist Larry Kramer himself, stops at nothing to fight for both his cause and the man he loves, Felix Turner (played by the talented Patrick Alparone).
Multiplying at an incredulous rate, the death toll of the mysterious disease stirs great fear in the tight-knit gay community of 1980s New York City, but doesn’t seem to be troubling others. At the beginning of the play, a frustrated Dr. Emma Brookner informs Weeks that the cause of the virus is most likely due to homosexual intercourse and demands that he spread the word. Taking the doctor’s demands to heart, Weeks makes it his mission to inform everyone of this no matter the repercussions — making many enemies along the way. As the drama unravels, we watch Weeks as he struggles to rally not only the public, but also his homosexual peers. Due to the obnoxious and ego-driven ways of his efforts, Weeks is eventually made an outcast by his own community. Throughout all of this, Ned’s own lover, Felix, is also struck by the contagion, making the battle in whole even more personal and intimate.
It is obvious that the cast members themselves are incredibly passionate about the message behind the work. There is a sense of fervor and intensity taken on by each of the actors in their portrayals of the real-life characters — all of which have differing viewpoints on the matter at hand. Patrick Breen, a member of the original cast, leads this production with his irritatingly spot on depiction of the quick-tongued Weeks — a character one may find to be rather detestable for his contentious nature.
While the story behind “The Normal Heart” tugs at heartstrings from start to finish, the fast-paced dialogue and random outbursts of anger on stage may confuse audience members at many moments throughout. All in all, it is the emotive power of Kramer’s words that brings “The Normal Heart” back to life nearly 30 years after the first emergence of HIV/AIDS.