Friday, June 17, 2011

The Normal Heart

When is the last time you went to the theater and had a cathartic experience? I can't think of any drama I've seen in years that provoked real emotional catharsis. 
Well, this excellent revival of Larry Kramer's The Normal Heart is one intensely cathartic experience (it just won a Tony Award for best revival of a play, and deservedly so). Directed by George C. Wolfe and Joel Grey, with an excellent cast, The Normal Heart is a theatrical rant but it is a good, necessary, emotional, funny, poignant and enraging rant. Joe Mantello plays Ned Weeks, a Larry Kramer-like activist, who at the beginning of the eighties realizes that young gay men are dying in droves, but because the epidemic seems confined to them, nobody seems to care. Worse, there is deliberate neglect on the part of the health authorities and the government to help because it is an illness that attacks gay men only (which turned out to be untrue).
To see a play about the beginning of the AIDS pandemic now is just as shocking as it must have been when it was first staged, off-Broadway in the mid-80s, but perhaps for different reasons. Now there are drugs that seem to help patients live long lives, and it was reported recently that there is one patient who seems to have been cured. We don't see the devastation any more on the streets of New York, with its hosts of ravaged young men looking like living ghosts, but the devastation lives in the hearts of millions of people who lost loved ones to AIDS, including myself. And it has not gone away. People like Larry Kramer remind us that AIDS is still killing men and women all over the world. The shock today comes from realizing how indifferent we were, how deliberately we tried to look away.
What I loved about this play is that it does not let anybody off easy. Kramer was the original founder of GMHC (Gay Men's Health Crisis). He was so antagonistic and abrasive (although in the play and through Joe Mantello's deeply empathetic perfromance he is lovably so) that he was thrown off the board and then founded Act Up, which was a much more radical organization.
For people outside the gay community it's very hard to understand anything concerning gayness, let alone the fraught politics behind AIDS activism. At the time, Kramer was critical of gay promiscuity because it seemed suicidal. He got a lot of flak from the gay community who were trying to empower themselves after being in the closet for centuries. When one sees the play today, one can understand that side of the argument, but one instinctively sides with Kramer/Weeks and wants everybody to stop sleeping around and forget about the politics. 
But The Normal Heart is a good play, which is the opposite of a pamphlet. Kramer understands that human complexity, as in motives not being entirely pristine, good intentions sometimes being misguided, deeply flawed characters, and clear eyed realism makes for great drama and great truth and that individual human stories will move us to outrage and compassion. You'd have to be made of stone not to be moved by this ferocious play. The compassion in this play is fierce and relentless, it has nothing to do with the shy benevolence of a pietá. It is a fighting, screaming compassion and I had never seen anything like it on a stage.  Nor had I been to a play where half the time you could hear many audience members openly sobbing or clapping wildly at the best lines, cheering at the poignant jokes.
A seat away from me was an elderly lady who left at intermission because she didn't know what the play was about when she bought the ticket (didn't she read the poster? She has been living under what rock?). Having sat through half the play, she still refused to open her heart and her mind. Unfortunately, even with all the "progress" being made, this is the actual world we live in.
At the end of The Normal Heart you are moved and outraged and appalled and consoled by the sheer force of Kramer's voice and the stark nakedness of the production, which takes place within four white walls with words protruding from them like a news ticker frozen in time, and a list of names of victims of AIDS that keeps growing until it threatens to engulf the entire theater.
The actors are all magnificent, in particular a ferocious Ellen Barkin as Emma Brookner, a doctor who first battled against the horrible disease when no one understood what it was. Joe Mantello is also excellent. A bit over the top, but funny and furious. I really liked Jim Parsons (who apparently is on a hit TV show I know nothing about). The play is mercifully smart, funny and very touching and it is not meant as a punishing sermon for the audience, but as a window into the tragic emotional, social, cultural and political bewilderment that is AIDS.
In a leaflet you get when you exit the play, and in a paragraph written in the playbill, Kramer writes that pharmaceutical companies are the greatest evil unleashed by man on man. He is still fighting that they don't spend as much as they should on AIDS research and he claims they create medicines that palliate but do not cure. I'm glad he was moved to action and made this his cause. And I'm glad he was a talented writer before he dedicated his life to fighting AIDS.
The title of the play comes from a line in September 1, 1939, a very fitting poem by W.H. Auden.

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