This Week In Theater
Written by Larry Kramer
Review by Rose Desena
Larry Kramer hits close to my heart.
It was the early eighties; I was a full-time artist living in San Francisco. It was a magical time. The sexual revolution was at its height; there were fern bars in the Marina District full of 30 something straight singles looking for fun with no commitment. The Castro and South of Market had its own crowd. Gay men from all over the country took up residence in the City by the Bay desperately seeking freedom, acceptance and most of all tolerance. The boys poured into the bars and bath houses embracing their new-found liberties. The city was experiencing a boom; small shops were opening; restaurants and cafes were full, particularly in the Castro. Money was flowing and everything was beautiful, or so we all thought.
I volunteered one day a week at the Haight Ashbury Free Clinic. It was 1982, and we were starting to hear horror stories of an untreatable illness that was deadly. By early 1985, the nurse practitioners and health counselors were confused and overwhelmed by the number of patients seeking help for something they didn’t understand. What started as spots and lesions on the skin was turning into some sort of killing machine. The clinics were used to treating relatively simple things, handing out antibiotics for STDs or dealing with herpes, but this was like a napalm bomb sweeping through the gay community. There was no cure and no way to know what they had, and it was getting worse by the day.
By late 1986/87 everything changed. A dark cloud hung over our shining city. News of people dying became a daily occurrence. Businesses in the Castro and South of Market were closing, presenting not only a health crisis but an economic one as well. The bath houses and clubs were shutting down. Life as we knew it was over. This was devastating and what was to come was even more of a problem. This strange killer was ripping its way into the straight scene through those who shared needles, blood banks and casual sex with someone who might be bisexual.
Many gay men circumstantially separated from families were depending on friends to help as the last days drew near. By late 1988, I personally watched 40 friends, and acquaintances die; shocked to see what this awful disease was doing to them, once strapping good-looking men now resembled Auschwitz victims. Skin and bones, pale, white and full of sores with eyes so sunken I couldn’t imagine how they could see clearly. I went to visit my dear friend Ken; he lay in the hospital bed too weak to sit up. The only words he said to me before he went off to sleep forever stuck in my mind like they were cemented. He asked, “Why is no one helping us, why do they hate us so much? They’re exterminating us like rodents.” He just kept mumbling and mumbling, his eyes wet with tears. I put my hand over his and apologized, not for myself but for a weak pathetic society.
Larry Kramer’s play The Normal Heart is a heart-wrenching look at the first few years of the AIDS epidemic and the struggles of a few crusaders who were willing to take on the fight at any cost. The play opens in NYC, 1981. Dr. Emma Brookner (Lisa Pelikan), a wheelchair-bound NY physician, is seeing more and more men come into her office with odd red spots and stories of fatigue. She is a very competent doctor, well-trained and experienced in diseases, but she is extremely concerned as things worsen with time. She has tried many different treatments like chemo and drugs therapies, but nothing works. By late 1981, she knew she was helpless in this fight. Troubled by the fear of some sort of plaque erupting, she starts to speak up. However, it falls on deaf ears until she runs into Ned Weeks (Tim Cummings) a gay activist whose loud mouth and passion would be very helpful in trying to get someone to notice what was going on.
Ned in spite of his own personal issues starts to get involved and teams up with Brookner. He starts a small organization that quickly grew by recruiting volunteers, speaking out and getting attention. He puts together a group of very committed people who work day and night running hot lines and lobbying elected officials for support. They needed money, and most of all they need this to be recognized as something serious and deadly.
After carefully evaluating the situation, Dr. Brookner was pretty sure of one thing, if you wanted to avoid getting the disease stop having sex, maybe that’s the carrier. She was scared and desperately searching for some kind of answer. Both she and Ned go on a crusade trying to convince those in the organization to get the word out about abstention.
However, Ned and the doctor were fighting an uphill battle on that issue and his own organization turned against him, fearful they would alienate the very people they were trying to help. Not even the community that was being targeted was accepting that as the only answer. In the meantime the conservative religious groups were having a field day preaching that AIDS was God’s punishment. Whatever was killing gay men now became a political issue.
Tim Cummings does an outstanding job as the overly emotional Ned Weeks. He is an aggressive, loud obnoxious character making demands on everyone he comes in contact with. Felix Turner (Bill Brochtrup) is a fashion writer for the Times whom Ned enlists for help. He adds some softness to the hard edges of the play and is very believable as a fashion writer for the Times, unfortunately with little power over the News Desk. He has a profound affection for Ned, and they develop a relationship eventually moving in together. Felix becomes a good sounding board for Ned, but he is no help in calming his deep rage. In the meantime, the organization is growing with 600 members and a Board of Directors. The president, Bruce (Stephen O’Mahoney), has a professional persona; he is a corporate executive making him a perfect person to be the face of the movement. Ned whose abrupt and controversial nature did little to help the cause, and he is in constant combat with Bruce and the other members of the team. Ultimately, sad as this sounds, Ned is asked to leave the very group he started. Sometimes passion is just not enough; Ned leaves willingly knowing deep inside it is best for the cause.
I loved Fred Koehler and Verton Banks, both are enduring and convincing characters and both work well with the mechanics of the play.
Larry Kramer’s use of Ned Weeks is really interesting; he is his own protagonist, the passion that drives him is also what destroys him. Lisa Pelikan (Dr. Brookner) is familiar with Tim Cummings having worked together in Electric Ballroom, and I am sure that helped with the good chemistry they share. She keeps up with the strong overzealous hectoring of Ned while moving around in her wheel chair convincingly. The staging works well, keeping you up-to-date with the time line using text that runs across the stage. The end was what sent me over the edge as they run thousands of names across the set’s walls.
To this day, there are many theories about AIDS, how it started and who was responsible for it, but nothing has really been proven. If there is something that is more disturbing than the disease itself, it is the lack of support, the time it took for action and the dark prejudice that surrounded it. There were a lot of reasons the government started to kick in support. Sure the gay activists helped, but I personally believe it hit too close to home when it leaked into the straight community. We lost years and thousands of people.
This is a complex piece of work, strongly written to get into your soul. It made me really sad to relive it all over again. Although it’s a hard play to watch and a little long and tedious at times, it’s important we not forget things from this critical time in history. We can never forget our mistakes as a society otherwise what’s to keep us from making them again.
I really recommend it. It’s a go see. Runs Wednesday thru Saturday night @ 8pm and Sunday @ 2pm until November 3rd. Please check web site for changes.
Written by Larry Kramer
Directed by Simon Levy
CAST: Verton R. Banks, Bill Brochtrup, Tim Cummings, Matt Gottlieb, Fred Koehler, Stephen O’Mahoney, Ray Paolantonio, Lisa Pelikan, Dan Shaked, Jeff Witzke
The Fountain Theatre5060 Fountain Ave. Los Angeles CA 90029