I was going to write a hardcopy letter but decided to use this route instead. Please, if you think it appropriate, pass my comments along to all of the cast members.
As you know, I was in the audience last Friday. Somehow or other I had missed seeing this play up until now. It was and is a very important play in the history of g/l/b/t rights and the AIDS epidemic. As someone who joined his local gay rights organization in Seattle one week to the day after the beginning of the Stonewall riots, I have been very involved with the movement since then. However, given the passage of time, some of my memories of that awful period in my life and the life of this country had dimmed. The superb job you did on the play brought that whole awful period back to me with stunning clarity. I left the theater an emotional mess.
While I am sure that I took away a different experience from others in the audience last Friday, I was happy to see younger people there. Hopefully they came away with some inkling of what we went through then. I had forgotten, over time, the maddening denial of governmental officials as well as members of the press that anything was going on that needed attention. One of the important aspects of that period that the play brought to life was the pain we all felt as our friends died with frightening suddenness. All of these emotions were brought to the audience in a very palpable way.
Tim Cummings and Bill Brochtrup
I do not want to single out any performer more than another for praise as everyone contributed to the effectiveness of the evening. I must say though that Tim Cummings certainly brought all the passion and anger of his character to life very effectively. Bill Brochtrup was a great foil to that anger. His progression in the disease was very effective, especially the makeup he wore at the end of the play. Having had several close friends die of the disease, when he appeared towards the end his appearance caused me to suddenly remember that yes, that was exactly what my friends looked like. Stephen O'Mahoney's portrayal of a closeted gay person wanting to come out but unable to because of his job and background hit the right note. Matt Gottlieb's portrayal of a man trying to be supportive of his brother but also constrained by his professional responsibilities also rang true. Fred Koehler's anguish at the end over his job as well as what was happening in his life as part of the GMHC was heartbreaking. Lisa Pelikan's anger at what was happening and her inability to get anyone to do anything about it rang true. Dan and Jeff and Verton's rolls as important supporting characters were just right for their roles. In short I want to say thank you to all of you. The cast of course are deserving on praise but also the director and the rest of the crew for provided me with one of the most important evenings of theater I've had in many, many years.
I come in to Los Angeles frequently for cultural events as there is nothing here in the desert to equal the quality of what I can see in Los Angeles. This evening was well worth the late-night drive back to Palm Springs. You all are to be commended for doing an outstanding job.
Andrew F. Johnson, Palm Springs, CA
The Normal Heart Now to Dec 15th (323) 663-1525 MORE
Lily Brown and friend chat with actor Tim Cummings
All of us at the Fountain Theatre feel it is important for young people to see our current production ofThe Normal Heart. Larry Kramer’s powerful, funny and deeply moving chronicle of the dawn of the AIDS crisis in 1981 has been named one of the 100 Greatest Plays of the Twentieth Century by the Royal National Theatre of Great Britain. Our production has earnedrave reviewsand overwhelming audience response and has just been extended to December 15th.
An entire generation of young people have grown up with little or no awareness of AIDS. Many think the AIDS crisis is “old news” and something that happened “back then” with no relevancy today. Not true. More than 30 million people have died worldwide from the AIDS virus so far, with over 1 million people still dying every year — today, now — in 2013.
Our acclaimed production of The Normal Heart is not a history lesson. It is a riveting drama, a heartfelt love story, a compelling political thriller. It is powerful theater, life-changing theater, necessary theater. With the force to inspire and open the eyes and hearts of young people. As this message from college student Lily Brown states so eloquently:
There have been so few times in my life that a piece of theater has moved me so much as to push me to the point of tears. Tears for heartbreak, tears for sorrow, tears for pure rage and tears for lost time and lost lives. But more than deeply moved, I was deeply inspired. As a 20-year-old college student working to get a degree in political theater and Spanish, there is nothing more valuable to me than getting to see the type of work that I aspire to make brought so wonderfully and vivaciously to life. It gives me hope for the future of theater and hope for the future of my career -- I can only hope to make something so powerful someday. Thank you for an evening not soon forgotten.
All my love and appreciation,
The Normal Heart Extended to Dec 15 (323) 663-1525MORE
Tim Cummins, Bill Brochtrup in ‘The Normal Heart’.
“This production at the Fountain Theatre certainly exemplifies that great theatre is alive and well in Los Angeles. “
– Broadway World
The Fountain Theatre’s exclusive L.A. revival of The Normal Heart, which received extensive critical acclaim and has been playing to sold-out houses, will extend through Dec. 15. The Normal Heart is Larry Kramer’s groundbreaking drama about public and private indifference to the onset of the AIDS crisis, and one man’s fight to awaken the world to its urgency. Although it first premiered in 1985, the play was so ahead of its time that many of the core issues it addresses — including gay marriage, a broken healthcare system and, of course, AIDS — remain strikingly relevant today.
Verton R.Banks, Stephen O’Mahoney, Fred Koehler
In its “Pick of the Week” review, the LA Weekly calls the Fountain revival “A deeply moving production… performed by a deeply committed ensemble.” BroadwayWorld says, “Critic’s Pick… directed with meticulous detail …. The Fountain Theatre knocks [it] out of the Park.” EDGE Los Angeles raves, “Passionate and powerful… the Fountain’s thoughtful and moving production of this classic qualifies as a must-see,” and LAist finds The Normal Heart to be “A strong, smart, character-driven play… a theatrical triumph for all involved, and a must-see for all theatre lovers.”
In 2000, The Normal Heart was named “one of the 100 greatest plays of the 20th century” by the Royal National Theatre of Great Britain. The Fountain Theatre production marks the first time the play has been seen in Los Angeles in over 16 years.
The Normal Heart is directed by Simon Levy and features Verton R. Banks, Bill Brochtrup, Tim Cummings, Matt Gottlieb, Fred Koehler, Stephen O’Mahoney, Ray Paolantonio, Lisa Pelikan, Dan Shaked and Jeff Witzke.
Performances continue at the Fountain Theatre through Dec, 15. For reservations and information: 323-663-1525 www.FountainTheatre.com.
Tim Cummings and Bill Brochtrup in “The Normal Heart”
by Dale Reynolds
The HIV/AIDS crisis has slipped from the consciousness of the American public in the last decade or so, as fewer and fewer white folk die from it (or are newly infected) and as GLBT acceptance has become more mainstream. But back in the mid-1980s, when panic over the disease was the norm (Where’d it come from? Who’s responsible? How do you catch it???), the conservative government of Ronald Reagan was accused of insufficiently helping the thousands of (mostly) gay men, blacks, intravenous drug users, and hemophiliacs who were infected, grew seriously ill, and subsequently died.
Verton R. Banks, Stephen O’Mahoney and Fred Koehler
There was so much fury in the left-leaning communities, including the most-affected ones — sexually-active gay and bisexual men — that groups such as AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power (ACT UP) with its “Silence=Death” slogan and Gay Men’s Health Crisis (GMHC) were formed. They protested government policies and anti-gay religious leaders, along with a general apathy from the confused public.
To Oscar-nominated screenwriter Larry Kramer (Women in Love), a gay man who is himself HIV+, this was unacceptable, so he helped form the clamorous and aggressive ACT UP and wrote a definitive play on the crisis, The Normal Heart (1985), which is now having its first revival in Los Angeles since 1997 at the feisty 99-seat Fountain Theatre.
Kramer, an angry and difficult man who still doesn’t mind excoriating the conservatives who wouldn’t help at the beginning of the crisis, was recently quoted in Parade magazine: “I’ve always felt that our government has allowed [AIDS victims] to die, literally, and…Dachau was where the [Nazi] government was doing just that … [with] Jews and gays and gypsies, a lot earlier than anyone knew.”
The Normal Heart is being directed by Simon Levy, a heterosexual who lived in San Francisco during the AIDS crisis, and stars Tim Cummings, a gay man, as Ned Weeks, a surrogate for the playwright. Cummings came of age after the hysteria had largely disappeared. But both men were in a decidedly militant mood when interviewed for this article.
According to Levy, “This play helps us understand the origins of the crisis when the Reagan Administration wouldn’t acknowledge it or put money into slowing it down. They were evil. Larry Kramer is a fighter and a leader in this army of resistance. He still fights for better health care and more dignity for underserved communities.”
For Cummings, “I knew about the AIDS crisis first hand, studying at Tisch [School of the Arts/New York University] during the early 1990s. We learned early about the value of condoms [as] ACT UP’s “Silence = Death” campaign was everywhere. There was extraordinary fear about having sex with other men, and even though it was under control at the time, there was a lot of caution and worry in the air.”
Believing that “great art reflects the universal, not just the particular,” Levy wanted to direct Normal Heart since a year ago, when he had seen “this fantastic production of it at the Arena Stage in Washington, DC, and I knew that I had to do it here. It took seven months of negotiations with Larry Kramer’s and producer Daryl Roth’s people to get the rights for LA, but Kramer’s angry voice was important in 1985 and remains so. The crisis is not over.”
Cummings learned of the project early. “I already knew the play, and when I heard about it on the grapevine, and saw it on Breakdown Services, I wrote to Raul Staggs [the casting director] asking for an audition. I had a couple of other play auditions out of town, and was on hold for some job offers, but I turned them down in order to play Ned — it was that important to me.”
Levy acknowledges that he and producers Deborah Lawlor and Stephen Sachs had a short list of actors they wanted to play the lead, including Cummings. “I called around and asked other directors for suggestions, and Tim was highly recommended. I’d seen him at Rogue Machine Theatre in The New Electric Ballroom and its director, John Perrin Flynn, said that Tim Cummings was ‘one of the best actors in Los Angeles.’ I have well-honed instincts on acting and actors and I agreed.”
Lisa Pelikan and Tim Cummings
The play follows a gay activist, Ned Weeks, who has become enraged at the deliberate indifference of city, state and federal officials, as well as the blindness of some leaders in the gay community. He’s motivated to become an activist, with personal as well as political ramifications for him. The play allows director and actors much anguish to feed upon for their characterizations.
While Cummings, son of an Irish fireman and built like one, is totally open about his sexuality (still somewhat problematical in Hollywood, if not New York), Levy never asked those auditioning about their sexual or emotional orientations, nor of their HIV status: “They’re actors first in our eyes. Besides, I like to create a ‘sacred circle’ for the cast, into which they can be themselves in order to create a full-bodied character.” As to his actors’ responses during the auditions, many knew this play and had wanted to do it — as it was relevant, on whatever level, to their own lives.
Cummings used Joseph Campbell’s idea of “the hero’s journey” for Ned’s progress — what Weeks goes through from beginning to end mirroring the mythology of any hero’s path. “It was a ‘eureka’ kind of moment for me, demanding attention and change. I love that the idea means there is something mythical and heroic about his journey, which elevates the play.”
In addition, Cummings thinks that the notion of Ned’s exploration mirrors the struggles the audience will have gone through themselves, or maybe have regretted not having gone through. “The play’s crisis is Weeks’ rite of passage. In taking on a hostile — or at the very least, indifferent — government, Ned has to stand alone to be that clarion bell on the truth of the situation. He will stand up, be counted, and walk away as an advocate for human rights.”
All this fits into the actor’s and director’s activist consciences, especially Levy’s: “My job as an artist is to awaken — or reawaken — the public to important social and political issues. My mission is to help people remember what’s right.”
Kramer’s screed of a play is what Levy describes as “a political thriller: ‘How did HIV/AIDS get is name? and why was the government so hostile in helping those stricken?’ His play is a tornado, but Larry’s main message is about love.”
And hate, too. Kramer told Parade in the recent interview, “Life is very fragile. It’s very difficult for us, no matter how secure we think we are. Everybody who goes into a voting booth and votes against [gay people] hates us. We have been hated for so many centuries. You would think somewhere along the line we could’ve learned how to fight back.”
Tim Cummings and Bill Brochtrup
The Fountain is well-known for its provocative and up-to-date productions on a wide variety of recent minority-themed topics: Heart Song, In theRed and Brown Water, the deaf-specific version of Cyrano de Bergerac, On the Spectrum (about characters with autism), as well as a series of American premieres of plays by South African writer Athol Fugard. The leaders at the Fountain have reached out to ethnically-and–politically-diverse audiences who don’t normally attend relatively expensive theater.
“If we don’t learn these lessons of intolerance,” Levy says, “history will repeat itself. So reaching this newer generation of young people about this subject is imperative. We must never repeat these mistakes.”
Tim Cummings and Bill Brochtrup in rehearsal for ‘The Normal Heart’ .
by Don Grigware
The Normal Heart hasn’t been done in years. Tell me about the play’s relevance today, from your perspective.
The play mentions gay marriage, which is relevant today: DOMA being struck down, Prop 8 being ruled unconstitutional, more and more states are voting to allow for it. The play also brings up the failures of the health care system, and those are relevant today as well. We’ve yet to see what Obamacare results in, ultimately, but I have hope. The play discusses homophobia, bigotry, closeted gays, politics, conspiracy theories, etc. Those are all relevant now.
Suicide among LGBT youth has been tragically high, of course there’s this putrid Putin/ Russia debacle. The gay-bashing rate in NYC is currently on an alarming rise, which includes the murder of Mark Carson on May 18th, shot directly in the head after his assailant hurled anti-gay slurs at him and his companion. Right in the heart of the West Village. To be honest, I don’t think there will ever be a time this play is not relevant. It’s only a matter of who is brave enough to produce it, as it is not an easy play to do.
What about your character and how he affects the issues at hand? What are the challenges in playing him?
Tim Cummings and Bill Brochtrup, ‘The Normal Heart’ at the Fountain Theatre.
Ned Weeks goes from hesitant participant to full-blown activist and loses nearly everything along the way: his family, his friends, his love, his station in life. Ned is a fighter. A warrior. He does not understand why other people cannot fight back the way he does, and ultimately this alienates him from his community. He will do whatever it takes to wake people up and make them pay attention to this epidemic. He wants pride for the gay community, not shame, not hiding. He wants gay men to think with their hearts and minds, not their pecs and cocks.
The challenges in playing him are that his intensity, passion, Jewish intellectualism, rallying, rants about promiscuity, confrontational nature, and bursts of outrage are not things that can be handled delicately. Yet, we are in this intimate space—so it’s about striking a balance. Where can we hold back? Where do we need to go forward full throttle?
Talk a little about Lisa Pelikan and your working with her – now in 2 plays.
Tim Cummings and Lisa Pelikan in ‘The New Electric Ballroom’
A passionate perfectionist, a questioner, a force, a presence, a joy. With those mesmerizing blue eyes, to boot. Definitely an actor’s actor. Oddly enough, she is also making me take off my clothes in this, just like she did in The New Electric Ballroom. Ha.
Your participation in Ballroom was the best. I really enjoyed your performance. Was that harder to do than Heart, or easier since you are Irish and probably have lived through a lot of similar experiences in Ballroom? (Or am I all wet?)
Thanks, Don. That was a fantastic experience. Yes, I am Irish, but I tend to play Jewish men a lot, too, as I am now. I grew up in New York, surrounded by an abundance of Irish, Irish/Italian, and Jewish heritage. It comes naturally, I suppose.
What I loved about Ballroom was the transformational aspect: my character, Patsy, goes from smelly chubby fishmonger to sexy, slick, pop idol—right before the audience’s eyes. No special effects, no cutaways, no magic. Just good old fashioned in-your-face theatre. Brilliant playwriting and storytelling.
Was that harder than The Normal Heart? I don’t think anything will be harder than The Normal Heart. The role of Ned might be bigger than Hamlet. He barely leaves the action. He never stops talking. He rarely calms down. The level of stage skill—physical prowess, emotional intensity, collaborative endurance—required to play Ned assures he will likely never be conveyed by any actor that is incompetent, lazy, or timid. Larry Kramer was clever to have written Ned the way he did.
Tim Cummings and Carmela Corbett in “Eurydice” at South Coast Rep (2012).
Speak about your writing career.
I write novels, short stories, plays, screenplays, and poetry.
I released a collection called Orphans in the summer of 2011. It’s an idiosyncratic assemblage of short stories, poetry, screenplays, plays, and a film treatment. I wanted to put all the different writing forms together in one weirdly prismatic vessel, and unleash it unrepentantly onto the world. So, I did.
I have a full-length novel called Jake Curve that my agent in NYC is working on. It’s a story of a brilliant little boy who loses his identical twin to a mysterious disappearance, and how he contends with the difficulties of his family falling apart. Ultimately it is a story questioning the validity of family, and whether it is okay to leave them behind if you don’t fit in there.
My most recent play, Bully, is an exploration of this pandemic of teenagers committing suicide for being bullied for being gay. It’s a deeply polemical slaughtering of what masculinity is supposed to mean in today’s day and age. It pays homage to William Golding’s seminal masterpiece about savagery versus civilization, Lord of the Flies, probably my favorite book.
Writing or acting, if you had to make a choice?
Yikes! Can’t I conjoin them and be both? We’ll call it wricting! ‘Hi, I’m Tim, and I’m a wrictor.’
Who are your favorite actors?
Argh, this is a hard one—
Meryl Streep, Mark Rylance, Kate Winslet, Simon Pegg, Edie Falco, Sean Penn, Viola Davis, Richard Jenkins, Kristin Wiig, Gene Wilder, Jack Lemmon, Gene Hackman, Bryan Cranston, Richard Pryor, Benicio del Toro. I like people with passion. Jack Nicholson, he’s another. Gary Oldman. Cate Blanchett.
Also, many of our brilliant LA locals, like Anne Gee Byrd, Jenny O’Hara, John Getz, Hugo Armstrong. Our town is so ridiculously chockablock with talent. And no, not all of it is in the Fame and Fortune industry—it’s right there, in your face, on our small stages.
Your favorite playwrights? Tracy Letts, Maria Irene Fornes, Enda Walsh, Ruth Margraff, Arthur Miller, Tennessee Williams, Albee, Chekhov, O’Neill, Shaw.
Any role you haven’t played yet that you are yearning to play?
Jonny ‘Rooster’ Byron (Jerusalem). Willy Loman (Death of a Salesman). Eddie Carbone (A View From The Bridge). George (Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf). Thomas in Enda Walsh’s Misterman. Father Brendan Flynn (Doubt). Medea, in some awesome, twisted, all-male version. A one-man version of The Crucible. I’d also like to do The Pillowman by Martin McDonagh.
As I get older, I get to play increasingly interesting and substantial roles. The best is yet to come, I feel. I don’t fear or ward off age in any capacity. Bring it, I say. Look at Judi Dench, for fu**’s sake. Clint Eastwood. Bette White!
Anything else you care to add?
Looking forward to taking part in The Skylight Theatre Company’s honoring of Terrence McNally in a four-day event at the end of September called Salute. I was very honored to be asked. And, of course, I’m looking forward to The Normal Heart opening, and audiences experiencing it for its beauty and intensity. I hope it encourages conversations, think-tanks, and outrage.
Don Grigware writes his own blog and writes for Broadway World.
The Normal Heart Sept 21 – Nov 3 (323) 663-1525MORE
Tim Cummings and Bill Brochtrup at first rehearsal.
Fueled by love, anger, hope and pride, a circle of friends struggles to contain a mysterious disease ravaging New York’s gay community. Simon Levy directs the exclusive Los Angeles revival of Larry Kramer’s groundbreaking drama about public and private indifference to the onset of the AIDS crisis, and one man’s fight to awaken the world to its urgency. The Normal Heart opens Sept. 21 at the Fountain Theatre. Not seen in L.A. for over 16 years, The Normal Heart remains one of the theater’s most powerful evenings ever. It was so ahead of its time that many of the core issues it addresses — including gay marriage, a broken healthcare system and, of course, AIDS — are just as relevant today as they were when it first premiered nearly 30 years ago. “What’s wonderful about this play is that it’s a passionate reminder that we must always keep fighting for what we believe in, that we must never let injustice go unanswered,” says Levy.
Loosely autobiographical, The Normal Heart takes place in New York City in 1981. Los Angeles Drama Critics Circle and LA Weekly Award-winning actor Tim Cummings (Rogue Machine’s The New Electric Ballroom), stars as writer and activist Ned Weeks, whose doctor (LADCC award-winning Lisa Pelikan, The New Electric Ballroom) tells him he must convince everyone he knows to stop having sex or they’ll die. The play follows Ned and a core group of friends — Verton R. Banks (NAACP Theater Award-winner for Butterflies of Uganda),Bill Brochtrup (ABC’s NYPD Blue, Showtime’sShameless), Matt Gottlieb (The Grapes of Wrath at A Noise Within), Fred Koehler(CBS’s Kate & Allie, HBO’s Oz), Stephen O’Mahoney (Harvey at the Laguna Playhouse), Ray Paolantonio (Animal Farm, Wilhelm Reich in Hell at Son of Semele), Dan Shaked (On the Spectrum at the Fountain) and Jeff Witzke (Blank Theatre Co.’s Book Of Liz) — as they rail against a community that refuses to believe they are in danger, a bureaucracy that refuses to listen and a President who won’t even utter the word AIDS. Dismissed by politicians, frustrated by doctors and fighting with each other, their differences could tear them apart – or change the world. The title of the play comes from a poem by W. H. Auden, the last line of which is this simple truth: “We must love one another or die.”
When The Normal Heart premiered at New York’s Public Theater in 1985, Joseph Papp wrote, “In taking a burning social issue and holding it up to public and private scrutiny so that it reverberates with the social and personal implications of that issue, The Normal Heart reveals its origins in the theater of Sophocles, Euripides and Shakespeare. In his moralistic fervor, Larry Kramer is a first cousin to nineteenth century Ibsen and twentieth century Odets and other radical writers of the 1930s. Yet… the element that gives this powerful political play its essence, is love — love holding firm under fire, put to the ultimate test, facing and overcoming our greatest fear: death.” In 2000, The Normal Heart was named “one of the 100 greatest plays of the 20th century” by the Royal National Theatre of Great Britain, and the 2011 Broadway revival earned Tony, Drama League, Drama Desk and Outer Critics Circle awards for Best Revival of a Play. A movie directed by Ryan Murphy and starring Mark Ruffalo, Jim Parsons, Matt Bomer and Julia Roberts is slated to premiere on HBO in 2014. Larry Kramer recently told Playbill, “Now it’s considered a history play. Everything I said in the play has come true.”
Larry Kramer is an American playwright and LGBT-rights activist. He is a founder of Gay Men’s Health Crisis, an AIDS service organization, and ACT UP, a direct action AIDS advocacy group. His most acclaimed plays include The Normal Heart (1985) and the Pulitzer Prize finalist The Destiny of Me (1992). His screenplay for Women in Love was nominated for an Academy Award in 1969. He is the author of the novel Faggots (1978), a confrontational portrayal of gay culture, and a critical essay about the AIDS crisis, “1,112 and Counting” (1983). Kramer has also written the plays Sissie’s Scrapbook, A Minor Dark Age and Just Say No, A Play about Farce. His other books are The Tragedy of Today’s Gays and Reports From the Holocaust: The Story of an AIDS Activist. He earned his B.A. in English from Yale University. In 2013, he was honored by the Tony Awards with the Isabelle Stevenson Award for significant contribution to humanitarian or charitable causes.
Simon Levy was honored with the 2011 Milton Katselas Award for Lifetime Achievement in Directing by the Los Angeles Drama Critics Circle. Directing credits at the Fountain include Cyrano (LADCC Awards for Direction and Production), A House Not Meantto Stand; Opus (LA Weekly Awards, Best Director); Photograph 51;The Milk Train Doesn’t Stop Here Anymore (Backstage Garland Award, Best Direction); The Gimmick with Dael Orlandersmith (Ovation Award-Solo Performance); Master Class (Ovation Award-Best Production); Daisy in theDreamtime (Backstage Garland Awards, Best Production and Direction); Going to St. Ives; The Night of theIguana; Summer & Smoke (Ovation Award-Best Production); The LastTycoon, which he wrote and directed, (5 Back Stage awards, including Best Adaptation and Direction); and Orpheus Descending (6 Drama-Logue awards, including Best Production and Direction). What I Heard About Iraq, which he wrote and directed, was produced worldwide including the Edinburgh Fringe Festival (Fringe First Award) and the Adelaide Fringe Festival (Fringe Award), was produced by BBC Radio, and received a 30-city UK tour culminating in London. He has written the official stage adaptations of The Great Gatsby, Tender is the Night, and The Last Tycoon for the Fitzgerald Estate, all published by Dramatists Play Service.
Set design for The Normal Heart is by Jeff McLaughlin; lighting design is by R. Christopher Stokes; sound design is by Peter Bayne; video design is by Adam Flemming; costume design is by Naila Aladdin Sanders; prop design is by Misty Carlisle; the production stage manager is Corey Womack and the assistant stage manager is Terri Roberts.
The Normal Heart Sept 21 – Nov 3 (323) 663-1525MORE