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.
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.
For Levy, the crisis is still with us, in the USA especially among African Americans (44% of all new infections in 2009), as well as concentrations of the disease in Africa and Southeast Asia, but it’s become buried in the collective unconsciousness. “Thirty million people, world-wide, have died from HIV/AIDS in the last 30+ years, and 1.7 million currently die from it each year [as of 2011], with 2.5 million new infections, [so] I picked [this script] because it’s a great American play, a seminal gay and AIDS play, and a great political/love story. Its agitprop message blends nicely with its real characters.” And his continued activism? “Well, I grew up in San Francisco and had a lot of gay friends, from college and around the area, so when the HIV/AIDS crisis hit San Francisco, it took a lot of these friends.”
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.”
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.”
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 the Red 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.”
Dale Reynolds writes for LA Stage Times.
The Normal Heart Now to Nov 3 (323) 663-1525 MORE