The Normal Heart – Prepare to Have Yours Broken

In honor of June being Pride month, and also Men’s Health month…. And also because Jim Parsons and Lee Pace are two of my favorite people in the TV-world…. I went to see The Normal Heart for my Mtastic former roommate’s birthday.

The Normal Heart is a depiction of the AIDS crisis in the early 80s from the perspective of gay activists at the heart of it. When the play opens there are fewer than 200 recognized New York cases of the then-unnamed illness afflicting the gay community. The lone female character, Dr. Emma Brookner, is seeing patient after patient while their friends and lovers sit outside in the waiting room as we get to know them as well.

The Golden Theater’s production is spare – tall white walls with white text, statistics and quotes, in varying sizes that we only see when specifically lit; a gurney, a few chairs, a desk, a bulletin board, some stools and hanging lamps; the set pieces come and go. Sometimes the actors stay on them, silently, in the background – complicit, passive, participating but yet not involved. When the play moves forward in time, the names of AIDS victims are projected on the backdrop until the list is so long it streams off the set and onto the walls of the theater.

We meet Ned Weeks, Larry Kramer’s autobiographical vessel, played by Joe Mantello with fervor and tense, outraged energy. As the diagnosed cases begin to accumulate in the hundreds, then in the thousands, Ned’s is the voice of rage and desperation, pleading for action, for recognition, for the outside world to send help and for the gay men’s community to help themselves.

His foil is Bruce Niles, a closeted banking executive who both looks and sounds “more like a leader” – Lee Pace (in immaculate suits that fit every inch of his 6’3″ height, well done Martin Pakledinaz) and who resists any movement to motivate the community through fear or hysteria. Because to Bruce the gay rights movement has always been about social and sexual liberation, to insist that people give up any part of that would evaporate the movement’s accomplishments.

So on the one side we have the terrifying medical reality and those who want to mobilize an army of informed people to fight it with a join us or die approach: Ned and Dr. Brookner – and on the other, the pragmatists, providing support and counseling to those in need and marshaling morale instead of indignation: Bruce and the rest of the HIV advocacy organization he and Ned have founded.

Jim Parsons is  Tommy Boatright, a beam of sunshine and humor in this heated battle of wills – you can’t have 2 solid hours of pain without a few good laughs in the mix; Parsons is good for at least 40% of them. I don’t know whether it’s his experience in TV or just his general fantasticness, but he was lively, touching, and funny without being simply comedic relief.

John Benjamin Hickey is Felix Turner, a gay journalist Ned turns to when he’s trying to get media coverage of the growing health crisis. They become lovers, after a very New York Neurotic-Off, and Felix’s HIV diagnosis gives Ned a push he didn’t need, to become even more dedicated to raising awareness, funding, and survival rates. Hickey’s transformation, by the way, from hale and hearty writer to suffering patient, is drastic and stunning.

Yes, Ned is obnoxious at times, as he himself acknowledges. But his kind of crazed activism is so whole-hearted it is hard to resist. He has no regard for his dignity, his safety, his professional life – if everyone were so vocal and demanding in their outrage, imagine what we could get done, the play reminds us again and again.

But at the same time we need the realistic responders – the ones who leave medical research to the medical researchers and want to take care of people who need in-home care instead. Who don’t want to send out terrifying flyers, but who will keep a rotating roster of bedside vigils for the sick and the dying.

What we don’t need is their resistance to change, their stubborn insistence that giving up or reining in their sex lives means undoing all that the gay rights movement accomplished. This is still an issue in the gay community, obviously — shouldn’t the gay identity be broader than Queer Eyes and Pride parades? But isn’t that kind of Outness what people have fought and died for? But isn’t there more TO IT? (And as a queer woman, HELLOOOOOO).

The divide is never clearer than in the act two stand-off between Ned and Bruce, where Ned rattles off a list of gay poets, writers, artists that he claims as part of his culture. Being gay has to be about more than sex, Ned shouts and storms against Bruce’s outward calm. But you’re making us look bad, is the undertone of Bruce’s response as he informs Ned that he is being asked to leave the organization.

It’s the debate in Auden’s poem, from which the title of the play is taken – how can we hold out for individual rights (free love, baby) when what matters is the suffering of the whole. We have to work together and fix it because we can’t stand alone and ignore it, or trust that someone else will take care of it for us.

Also shouting into the void is Dr. Brookner, particularly in a monologue that not only brought down the house and brought out the tissues, but brought our lack of progress into stark relief. Very impressive staging from Joel Grey and George C. Wolfe (who stepped in when Grey was busy rehearsing for Anything Goes) in this moment – Ellen Barkin, in a wheelchair as the polio-stricken Brookner, faces the audience. Her interrogator stands behind her.

She hears the verdict on her grant application for 5 measly million dollars and is off on a tirade against the governmental bodies who deny her funding, impedes collaboration with the French doing similar research, ignore the facts that cases of HIV had been documented in Africa where it was obviously transmitted heterosexually, (and let’s not forget are led by a man who refused to say the word AIDS until the late 80s), and allow institutionalized homophobia to perpetuate an unprecedented health crisis that we are still reeling from today. Barkin was superb. She is caustic, determined, and wry. To me the physical evidence of her illness  also felt like a hopeful metaphor: at one time polio was fatal, and ruined lives, and there was no way out…and as Brookner herself says, now we have a vaccine and kids don’t get polio (in the United States, anyway).

Hope is in short supply for the rest of the cast and the play as a whole. It’s good that we laughed as much as we did towards the beginning because once the tears started – and from the crinkling sounds across the theater, they started at the same time for everyone – they didn’t stop.

I came out of this play feeling shattered – the AIDS crisis is far from over, even though safe sex is a watchword in the gay community and in progressive sex ed programs across the country. It’s still underfunded, underresearched, and the at-risk populations around the world aren’t getting help to resist, fight or cure what’s killing them. Instead they’re being told that condoms don’t work, that they deserve what they get because they’re gay, or because they’re having sex, or because their rape is their fault, or whatever other ludicrous, unscientific shame speech is coming from world leaders who should know better.

Kramer wrote a letter to viewers, to be handed out at the exits, naming the real identities behind The Normal Heart’s amalgams and constructs, and their fates. AIDS. Suicide. Tragedy that echoes out well past where the play left off. It was full of Ned Weeks’ ferocity, both daunting and inspiring. You want to join him in his fight, you want to borrow that loud intensity for your own cause, you want him to just be reasonable for once, and you just want to cry for everyone you ever met with this disease and everyone you never met because of it.

The Normal Heart is not a perfect play – like Frank Rich said about the sequel, Kramer has a journalist’s ear for dialogue, not a playwright’s, and it has the limitations of its privilege, its medium and its narrow lens – but it is powerful.

It should be required reading for activists everywhere as a reminder that passion sometimes should trump pragmatism and that principles should almost always come before personalities.

The windiest militant trash
Important Persons shout
Is no so crude as our wish:
What mad Nijinsky write
About Diaghilev
Is true of the normal heart;
For the error bred in the bone
Of each woman and each man
Craves what it cannot have,
Not universal love
But to be loved alone.

All I have is a voice
To undo the folded lie,
The romantic lie in the brain
Of the sensual man-in-the-street
And the lie of Authority
Whose buildings grope the sky:
There is no such thing as the State
And no one exists alone;
Hunger allows no choice
To the citizen or the police;
We must love one another or die.

From “September 1, 1939”
W.H. Auden

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