The Normal Heart

by John Stoltenberg

I lived through the time when this play takes place. I lived through it in New York City, where the play is set. I lived through it as a mysterious fatal disease afflicting gay men began to increase without ceasing.

I lived through it as the New York Native reassured me and other fearful readers that the alarming disease was not spread by sexual contact and we need not worry—so on the authority of this local gay-community newspaper I continued having what was not yet called unprotected sex.

I lived through it completely by chance. I should have been dead long ago.

These were a few of the many unsettling reflections stirred up by my viewing of Larry Kramer’s The Normal Heart. I have admired Larry Kramer from afar for years, for being ruthlessly courageous in his rage against the homophobic inaction that let loose a scourge. But I have never before been in the palpable presence of his voice as I was last weekend at Arena.

Kramer’s unequivocating jeremiad comes through most eloquently in the crusading character of Ned Weeks (played powerfully by Patrick Breen), but it suffuses the entire esthetic, from David Rockwell’s embossed-headline set to Batwin + Robin Productions’ grief-inducing projections of names of the dead. And the entire cast is so on board with the underlying values in this play that they make your heart ache.

At every turn the play pronounces:

This a polemic, people. Get used to it.

This is what did not get heard when the HIV/AIDS epidemic began.

Hear it now and weep—for all who have died of bigoted neglect (by Mayor Ed Koch, President Ronald Reagan, et al., ad nauseum).

As someone who escaped HIV by some fluke of fate I will never comprehend, I simply cannot be an objective critic of this work.

But see it now, America must—before another callous and indifferent Republican takes the White House.