‘The Normal Heart’ provides timely account of the AIDS epidemic

In 1981, a few gay men were being treated in New York City intensive care units with pneumocystis pneumonia and a rare cancer revealed through Kaposi’s Sarcoma: purplish tumors on the skin.

Because gay men were the first to contract this mysterious disease, initially, the media dubbed it “gay cancer,” replacing its medically-given term: gay-related immune deficiency. GRID erroneously suggested that gay men were the only ones affected by this new disease.

The underlying problem was an immune deficiency, and the disease was renamed Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome. By 1985, over 15,000 gay men were diagnosed with AIDS and as the death toll rose, the community was largely ignored by the government and medical establishments. More than 12,000 tragically lost their lives by the end of that year.

Amidst the fear, uncertainty and division, a play was born that raged about the frustration of being discounted and the desperation to find answers to a death sentence diagnosis. It detailed the story of writer Ned Weeks and his attempt to unite the community against a pandemic ready to wipe out an entire generation.

Written by Larry Kramer, the largely autobiographical “The Normal Heart” takes the audience through an emotional rollercoaster during the opening years of the epidemic, 1981 to 1984. Weeks is outraged by society’s lack of responsiveness and becomes an LGBTQ activist, fighting for the right of his community to survive.

This powerful play runs in Carrollwood Players’ Black Box Theatre Nov 5-13.

Under the direction of David J. Valdez, it is produced by David Fraga, with the mother and son team of Bonnie and Zach Zayas as props and stage manager. The play features Luis Graham (Ned), Christopher Daniels (Felix), Laura Roberts (Dr. Emma Brookner), Jeff Slagle (Ben), Tristan Horta (Mickey), Derrick Shane (Bruce), Dylan Fidler (Tommy) and Joshua Chaykin (Examining Doctor/Hiram/David).

“I was entering and exiting college during that era, so I happen to be the same demographic as the actors. We didn’t know what was happening,” Fraga says. “There was no information. We didn’t know what to do. Everyone was blaming everyone else. This play brought back memories of a time where we really didn’t know what was going on.”

With eerie similarities to the current COVID pandemic, the play is a raw, viscerally moving, true-to-life picture of the AIDS epidemic. From a political standpoint, it shows how AIDS was neglected in its early years, largely ignored for politics and majority morality. Also a tragic personal experience of two lovers trying to cope with the deadly diagnosis, the play refuses to sugarcoat the audience’s experience.

“Years ago, when I read the script, it was very unsettling,” Valdez says. “Although in the late 80s I was a child, I tried my best now as part of the LGBTQ community to research as much as I could on the AIDS crisis. I really felt a connection. These men were ostracized for the result of loving another human being. “It hit home with me, growing up in a more conservative household and understanding how it was possible to be ostracized because of who you love,” he continues. “In that way, I empathized, but mostly I felt sympathy for these men who were going through a horrific experience, not finding any answers.”

In the Black Box theatre, Valdez creates a world where all nine actors never leave the stage.

“I did this purposely,” he explains. “When the actors are not active in a scene, they are also spectators, becoming part of the audience. We are all watching this unfold as it happens. Are we going to sit silent, or are we going to do something?

“We’re not trying to fool the audience,” he adds. “We are in a theatre. We are telling a story and all of us are a part of this experience. It’s a powerful message signifying to me that we are all in this together.”

When “The Normal Heart” premiered in 1985, it was called a “wake-up call.” Valdez says that he would describe it now as a battle cry.

“Right at the top of the show, when the lights come up initially, it’s like you are being shot out of a rocket,” he notes. “The energy is there. We don’t stop. We don’t let you breathe until the end of the show. It is truly a battle cry.”

Roberts’ character Dr. Emma Brookner is based on Dr. Linda Laubenstein, the first doctor to treat patients with the mystery disease and link Kaposi’s Sarcoma to AIDS. Nearly 40 years later, when AIDS is more of a treatable lifelong condition than a fatal prognosis, she says it is more of a warning.

“Especially with what is going on now with COVID,” she notes. “There is this sense that what happened then can happen again and in some respects has been happening. It’s a warning of what can happen if we’re not paying attention; if we’re not thinking about each other and not living with compassion and really living mindfully.”

Graham, who plays Weeks, said that this generation should be grateful for those who came before.

“This play sends a strong message that the work is not done. You need to know where you started so you can know how to continue,” he says. “The actors in this show are bringing that story to life, teaching a little bit of history, and again, there’s still a lot more to do and a lot more to learn.

“This is a lesson that lets [this generation] know a lot happened that got them to the point where they are now,” he continues. “They can’t forget that they are standing on the shoulders of others who fought the battles. Even though there are still more battles, they are a lot further along than they were in the 60s, 70s and 80s.”

Zayas adds, “As someone who was not in the 80s but identifies as a queer person, I think this piece is very representative of what happened in the 80s. It’s a different approach than what something like ‘Angels in America’ does, but I think it still has that powerful message and shows me who my gay ancestors were because I wasn’t there.”

Though the play is set in the 80s, don’t expect the actors to don neon and acid wash. The characters wear clothing that could be from any decade, and the accompanying musical soundtrack is 80s with a twist – performed as covers by modern artists.

“I think timeless is the word to use because although we are telling a story from the 80s, this could happen again,” Valdez says. “We’re trying to keep our audience off-kilter just a bit. They may hear a song and think that they recognize it, but not in this way. It’s not how they remember it. It plays into the timelessness and the lessons to be learned still today.”

Although the character of Weeks sometimes comes across as a bully and one of the characters calls him out on his behavior, Valdez says that the audience will love his ferociousness and his unrelenting passion for those he cares about.

“Ned had to be bully to make any change because no one was listening to him. The Reagan administration didn’t even utter any of ‘AIDS’ for years, so someone like Ned, loosely based on Larry Kramer, had to be a bully,” Valdez explains. “My love for this play lives within Ned’s passion, but also the community. It’s truly an ensemble piece. It’s written so well. It’s a manifestation of pure love for each other. Even though it’s not the happiest or funniest show out there, it is truly a manifestation of community and love.”

Roberts says that the connection and determination of the characters are what she loves about the play.

Dr. Brookner is caught between red tape, bureaucracy and the system,” the actor says. “She is doing her best to treat this horrible disease when no one is helping. It feels like she’s screaming in a dark room just trying to bring humanity to the situation.”

Roberts also believes that while the show features mature content, “everyone who is interested in a truly moving and educational story, really interested in connecting with a piece of theatre, should come to this show.”

“This will be very eye-opening for the audience to see how these gay men and trans women were treated during that time,” Zayas adds.

“The Normal Heart” debuts November 5-13, 2021, at the Black Box Theatre in Carrollwood Players, located at 4333 Gunn Hwy. in Tampa. Showtimes are Fridays and Saturdays at 8 p.m. and Sundays at 2 p.m. Tickets are $15. To learn more and to purchase tickets, visit CarrollwoodPlayers.org.

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