The cast of The Normal Heart with director George C. Wolfe (center) at Arena Stage at the Mead Center for American Theater June 8-July 29, 2012.
Penned by outspoken AIDS activist and D.C. native Larry Kramer, The Normal Heart premiered at New York's Public Theater in 1986. In 2011, a revival made a smash on Broadway. But never in the play's history has it been professionally produced in Kramer's hometown—until now.
Starting June 8, last year's Tony Award-winning production is gracing Arena Stage's Kreeger Theater. Kramer co-launched Gay Men's Health Crisis and the AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power, or ACT UP. In The Normal Heart, he expresses his frustration at politicians, doctors and society at large during the AIDS crisis of the early 1980s.
Patrick Breen portrays Kramer's fictionalized stand-in, Ned Weeks. He says The Normal Heart was especially timely in the 1980s.
"When it was done in '86... it was kind of an agitprop, very angry play," Breen says, "because it was new information! People weren't really sure what was going on."
But Breen says the play's especially important now, since so many young people seem to dismiss AIDS.
"Unfortunately I think the young people consider it kind of a chronic illness now that you can keep under control with a certain cocktail of medicines," he says. "I was in London two years ago staying at some friend's house, a gay couple. And I asked them, 'What's the AIDS situation like here in London?' And he was like, the clubs open Friday night; they close Monday morning. It's drugs and partying and sex. And some young people come and say they would like to be made positive so they can join the orgy. And the phrase they used was 'Pos me up.' And I was chilled by that."
D.C.-based cast member Chris Dinolfo says Kramer's play was a wake-up call when it was first written, and it's a wake-up call now.
"I was born in '84," Dinolfo says. "I didn't really think about AIDS. I knew that you needed to have a condom on when you had sex. But seeing this play in my late 20s unlocked something in my brain. Because you think, people lived this. People still live this."
And more people "live this" in Washington, D.C., than any other city in the nation. In 2009, 3.2 percent of Washingtonians over age 12 were living with HIV/AIDS. That's higher than the infection rate of many developing countries.
Chris Beyrer, an epidemiology professor at Johns Hopkins, says things in the District are improving; for instance, there hasn't been an HIV-positive baby born in the District in several years.
"And that really is a function of a greatly improved screening/detection treatment for pregnant moms living with HIV," he says.
But still, he says bringing The Normal Heart to D.C., this summer is hugely important. For one thing, the play is, indeed, a continuing reminder of the destruction of HIV/AIDS: something Beyrer experienced firsthand as a gay man from New York.
"I lived through the 80s," he says. "My late partner and I were a part of ACT UP. And Larry Kramer was an angry man, a prophetic voice."
Now, Beyrer says we're less angry: "We have a much more engaged relationship between science, the community and the political sector. But still, one of the things that's really striking about The Normal Heart is that it's re-energizing the conversation for the current generation of young, gay men."
And the rates of HIV among these men, he says, is high.
"While treatment has been available, there's been a tremendous amount of transmission," Beyrer notes. "It's particularly severe among young and minority men who have sex with men. Particularly African Americans."
The other thing that excites Beyrer about this production of The Normal Heart is its timing. It coincides with a massive event he's helping to plan this July in the District: the 2012 International AIDS Conference.
"The International AIDS Conference is the biggest global health event of its kind," Beyrer explains. "It's every two years. It generally is over 20,000 delegates. And wherever we hold the conference, we try and use the conference as a spotlight on both the country's issues, and the host city's issues."
But Kramer views the conference with skepticism. In fact, he calls it "a waste of time."
"Because they're not proactive," he says of the delegates. "It's a lot of well-meaning people to come and continue their living in denial about what's happening. Did you know there are 75 million infections now, 35 million deaths? When this play was written, there were 41!"
Of course, that said, Kramer still hopes those 20,000-plus delegates will be proactive about at least one thing: seeing his show.
"I hope they'll go and see it, and that they should be moved enough to finally speak out and speak up," he says.
And Patrick Breen, who's spent a ton of time with Larry Kramer's play, says when you see The Normal Heart, it's hard not to be moved to "speak up."
"Whether you write a check, whether you show up, whether you write a poster, you write your congressman or whoever it is, Larry motivated me," Breen says. "And I think he motivates anyone who's experiencing this play to take action towards equality, towards kindness, towards usefulness, towards gratitude, towards service."
And perhaps even towards -- to quote Secretary of State Hilary Clinton in her 2011 address at the National Institutes of Health -- "an AIDS-free generation." It may sound idealistic, it may sound daunting, but once upon a time, in an era many of us still can remember, that's precisely what we had.
The Normal Heart runs at Arena Stage from June 8 through July 29. The 2012 International AIDS Conference will be held July 22 through the 27.
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