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April 27, 2016

Looking Forward and Back: THE NORMAL HEART, A Story about Past, Present and Future


“We’re all going to go crazy, living this epidemic every minute, while the rest of the world goes on out there, all around us, as if nothing is happening, going on with their own lives
and not knowing what it’s like, what we’re going through. We’re living through war, but where they’re living it’s peacetime, and we’re all in the same country.”
– Ned, The Normal Heart

History and time have a funny way of creeping back on us. Larry Kramer, American playwright, said the above words via his character Ned in 1985 but one would find these relevant even in the twenty-first century.

Playwright Larry Kramer penned an extremely personal play in The Normal Heart. The story is focused on New York between 1981-1984, when there was a rise of the HIV-AIDS crisis. The protagonist of the story is strident Ned Weeks, a gay activist who is trying to raise awareness of an unidentified disease killing mainly gay people in New York. The play is a tragedy of sorts, extremely hard hitting and close to home.

The Off Broadway premiere of The Normal Heart was on April 21, 1985 at the Public Theater. The theatre critic of The New York Times at the time, Frank Rich, said that, “Although Mr. Kramer’s theatrical talents are not always as highly developed as his conscience, there can be little doubt that The Normal Heart is the most outspoken play around – or that it speaks up about a subject that justifies its author’s unflagging, at times even hysterical, sense of urgency.” The play ran for 294 performances.

Photo by Joan Marcus

Photo by Joan Marcus

Kramer spoke of a universal problem and hence, the play took to foreign waters. In 1986, the play had its European premiere at London’s Royal Court theatre. The Normal Heart received its Australian premiere at the Sydney Theatre Company in 1989.

In 2004, the show was back to Public Theater, thanks to the Worth Street Theater Company. New York Times reviewer Ben Brantley wrote: “Yet a more poetic and timeless element of The Normal Heart gradually emerges here, a sense of scared, self-involved people trying to reach out to one another. It registers in everything from Ned’s clumsy dance with the polio-afflicted Emma to the devastating moment when a weak and ailing Felix pulls himself across the floor to embrace Ned. Like the play in which they appear, these characters are struggling to forge a bond with, and to make an impact on, something outside themselves.”

Hereafter, the play was officially welcomed into Broadway in 2010 with a staged reading directed by Joel Grey. The cast featured Michael Stuhlbarg, Joe Mantello, and Glenn Close, and the event the raised $150,000 for the Actors Fund and Friends in Deed. In 2011, the company actually reached Broadway. Once again directed by Grey, the production won three Tonys, including Best Revival of a Play and best featured acting awards for John Benjamin Hickey and Ellen Barkin. Brantley reviewed again and wrote, “The crisis depicted so vividly here is far from ended, as cases of AIDS continue to multiply internationally. And lest you leave this play thinking that you’ve had only a great cathartic night at the theater, fliers from Mr. Kramer are being handed out after the show (by Mr. Kramer himself on occasion), explaining how incomplete the fight against AIDS remains. Read one and take heed. But remember that the man who wrote it also wrote a far better play than you might have thought.”

Kramer meant business when he wrote the play and hence it keeps coming back to remind people of the condition that was and is HIV-AIDS. In 2014, stage took to screen when Ryan Murphy directed a television film of the play under the same title. The movie starred Mark Ruffalo and Julia Roberts and was distributed by HBO. Like the play, the movie received some strong critical response from the audience. It was nominated for many awards and also won several including Best Supporting Actor at The Golden Globes.

In an interview with HBO, Murphy said, “I have always felt this movie is more than a movie – it’s a movement, to a certain degree. It’s a call to arms. That’s how Larry wrote the stage play, and that’s what the movie is…Larry Kramer wisely realized so early on that to change the world, people have to know you. If they know you and see that we are all the same-that we all have normal hearts – that’s the first step.” And we don’t feel any different.

To purchase a copy of The Normal Heart, click here, and to learn more about licensing a production, click here.