You cannot choose your battles the gods do that for you;
But you can plant a banner, where a banner never flew.
But there is always a price to planting that banner, especially so if all those about you refuse to admit that there is a war that needs to be fought even as the body bags begin to mount.
Larry Kramer’s “The Normal Heart” was one of the earliest battle cries against the AIDS epidemic. It is belligerent, excessive, heavy-handed, relentless and quite heartbreaking. The story begins in July of 1981, and “Gay Cancer” has entered that frenzied saturnalia which was the gay scene of “liberated” New York City.
Ned (Tim Cummings), a writer and gay activist, is seeing his friends succumb to a mysterious illness. With only a single physician willing to treat those with the illness and neither city nor national government willing to invest in the needed medical studies, Ned browbeats and bullies those about him into forming their own organization to raise awareness of the rising crisis. Tommy (Verton R. Banks) and Mickey (a stellar Fred Koehler) fund raise and envelope stuff while Bruce (Stephen O’Mahoney), the former Green Beret, serves as the perfect front man for a gay committee organization that needs to engage a homophobic society.
Ned badgers his straight lawyer brother Ben (Matt Gottlieb in a finely layered portrayal) for both free legal support and contributions cranking up the tension in an already tense relationship. But for Ned the voices aren’t loud enough and the efforts not radical enough. He begins to lash out at the politicians, at the newspapers, at those around him.
“Talking is not my problem,” he admits, “shutting up is my problem.”
The cast consists of actors familiar to the L.A. theatregoers. The ensemble as a whole is both talented and deeply committed to the material. Cummings brings a precise potency to the role of Ned, but he is at his best when there is an emotional underpinning to ground his rage as in the scene with his brother and Dr. Brookner (Lisa Pelikan a standout even if wheelchair-bound). It is in the scenes with his stricken lover Felix (the excellent Bill Brochtrup) that Kramer’s swelling sense of love lost finally flares to the surface and that his rage becomes our rage.
Director Simon Levy delivers a top quality production enhanced by Adam Flemming’s exceptional video presentation.
But it is Kramer who dominates the stage
Kramer’s play thundered its rage at the complicacy of both the gay and straight world in their addressing the rise of AIDS in New York during the early 1980’s. The pain and passion of the piece is mined from the ore of Kramer’s own autobiography. Like the character of Ned, Kramer was among the founding members of numerous gay activist organizations including the Gay Men’s Health Crisis, and the AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power better known as “ACT UP”.
Following performances of the 2011 revival (which won the Tony that year for “Best Revival”) Kramer was on hand passing out handbills revealing the real life inspirations for the play’s characters. The character of “Bruce” was taken from Paul Popham, who served as the GMHC’s president until two years before his death from AIDS in 1987. Rodger McFarlane, Kramer acknowledges, was the model for the character of Tommy. He was also a co-producer of Kramer’s 1993 Pulitzer nominated play “The Destiny of Me”, his sequel to “The Normal Heart”.
Following McFarlane’s suicide in May of 2009, Kramer praised his achievements in working with the GMHC; “single-handedly Rodger took this struggling ragtag group of really frightened and mostly young men, found us an office and set up all the programs.” In an interview with The Advocate, Kramer put forth his view that McFarlane did more for the gay world than any person has ever done.
Kramer has been called to account for the harshness of his depictions of some characters; Popham, for instance, who was one of the founders and served as chairman on the AIDS Action Council, the first lobbying organization to bring the fight against AIDS to Washington.
In the era of the “Cocktail” and even the flickering hope of a cure spoken of, Kramer’s work could easily be relegated by some to the “historical curiosity” file, but that would be a misjudgment. Perhaps we are at the threshold of the finale to the long nightmare, and within one or two generations AIDS will carry the same relevance as scurvy.
But the future always holds new terrors: Global Warming, a repeat of the Toba Eruption, an Asteroid Impact event, a nanotechnology mishap, the desertification of the planet arising first in the Nile Delta, Seth Rogen making a sequel to The Green Hornet.
We exist on the thinnest edge of survival in a universe where extinction is the overwhelming norm and life, at best, a brief glitch in the constantly self-correcting master program.
Where Kramer’s play succeeds most brilliantly is in rubbing our noses in the brutal truth: No matter what unimaginable threats await us, the monster to fear most is apathy.
Yes, Kramer’s play is shrill and brutishly accusatory at times.
But when one is a voice in the wilderness, and a very lone voice at that, a shrillness borne of fury can be forgiven.
The Normal Heart
The Fountain Theatre
5060 Fountain Ave.
Los Angeles CA 90029 (Fountain at Normandie) (323) 663-1525 www.fountaintheatre.com