The Normal Heart – Why Larry Kramer is Still Angry
– And Why We Should Be Too

Story By: Edward Callaghan

Larry Kramer And Joe Mantello

Revisiting Larry Kramer’s seminal play on the AIDS plague, The Normal Heart after 25 years when it first sounded the alarm about an unresponsive and uncaring political system and a media establishment that back-paged news of the epidemic, I was unsure what to expect. Who would come? Would the power of his accusations still resonate? Would anyone care? Would this once fierce manifesto be relevant? My queries were quickly answered – it was a full house. Sadly, his charges are still valid. Hopefully someone still cares and YES! The Normal Heart is not only relevant but a finger in the eye of a world that would rather look away than realize this for what it is – a plague not confined to gay men but to every human being on the planet and - except for minor efforts by a handful of advocates - little has been done and millions continue to be infected each year.

I was thrilled to see on this past cold rainy Saturday a horde of people mobbed in front of the John Golden Theater. At first glance, it was just your average matinee crowd of well-to-do suburbanites but then I noticed many young couples straight and gay - never knowing a world without AIDS - and the male on male kisses upon greeting were more prevalent and less self-conscious than I remembered at my first viewing in 1985. Maybe things had changed………
From the very first scene, I realized how little things had changed. The frustration and anger of lead character Ned Weeks (clearly modeled after the author) could be felt this weekend in any number of living rooms. Actor Joe Mantello who plays Weeks took me back decades to the time when Larry Kramer used his pulpit at the New York Native like a modern day Paul Revere. One felt the fear all over again.

His fellow traveler in sounding the warning, Dr. Emma Brookner, herself a victim of another plague – polio - is sublimely portrayed by Ellen Barkin in her Broadway debut who with one impassioned monologue brought the audience to its feet for a three minute ovation. Ellen’s performance brought to mind my dear friend Chris Norwood who for almost two decades has run Health People an organization in the South Bronx offering peer to peer support for women with AIDS and teens many orphaned by the plague. Chris’ program has been replicated all over the world, two years ago she was one of the Women of Peace nominated for a group Nobel Peace Prize yet she had to literally chain herself to our current Mayor’s mansion in a desperate attempt to protest budget cuts. An act also worthy of a standing ovation.

Director Joel Grey (with an acknowledged assist from George C. Wolfe) carries the audience on a juggernaut from laughter to tears to anger, with each scene opening with an ever-growing list of victims. By play’s end, the stage walls and ceilings were covered with thousands of names – clear enough for viewers to recognize and gasp at the sight of a loved one.

Larry did it again And so did Joel and this memorable cast – some portraying characters I knew in real life which welled up a jumble of memories.

Stunned, I sat with my soul-mate John in our seats while people trickled out into the rain and tried to deal with the anger with which I was left -anger at a world that first termed this plague GRID – gay related infectious disease. Anger at the slow response from the governments that have moved at snail’s pace. Anger at the pharmaceutical companies more interested in life extending drugs than a cure or a vaccine as there is no money in that.

I am angry that the promise of so many of my friends will never be realized.

That Willi Smith will never again deck me out in a great linen jacket. That my darling tall blond Joey Welsh will never again lift the velvet rope for me at the hot club du jour. That Rudolf Nureyev will never again soar. That Keith Pruitt will never again write a brilliant concerto. That Carole Nietzel will never again evoke Marilyn Monroe. That Gene Anthony Ray will never again leap across 46th Street. That Howard Rollins will never again command the stage – or screen with his fierceness. That Michel Bennett will never again rehearse “A Chorus Line”. That Danny Rizzi will never again dazzle me with his beautiful smile and his sparkling blue eyes. That I will never again see Paul Gerro, Kevin Hayes, Michael O’Toole, Damian Stoddard, Paula Frattarre, Noel Rodriguez – all taken too soon.

That so many young artists, writers, musicians, poets, teachers and friends have been taken from me –and the world.

Angrier that so many still carrying the disease live lives of desperation – not knowing what the next day will bring.

I am angry that my old rolodex has more persons dead than alive.

As we left, we ran into a gentleman attired in a colorful Sherpa hat and an orange jacket handing out a letter. Hardly inconspicuous and that was the point, it was Larry Kramer, at 75, still fighting. Bless you Larry.

The Normal Heart opens for a limited engagement on Wednesday April 27. Do not miss this.

A letter from Larry Kramer

Larry Kramer

Please know that everything in The Normal Heart happened. These were and are real people who lived and spoke and died, and are presented here as best I could. Several more have died since, including Bruce, whose name was Paul Popham, and Tommy, whose name was Rodger McFarlane and who become my best friend, and Emma, whose name was Dr. Linda Laubenstein. She died after a return bout of polio and another trip to an iron lung. Rodger, after building three gay/AIDS agencies from the ground up, committed suicide in despair. On his deathbed at Memorial, Paul called me (we'd not spoken since our last fight in this play) and told me to never stop fighting.

Four members of the original cast died as well, including my dear sweet friend Brad Davis, the original Ned, whom I knew from practically the moment he got off the bus from Florida, a shy kid so very intent on become a fine actor, which he did.

Please know that AIDS is a worldwide plague.

Please know that no country in the world, including this one, especially this one, has ever called it a plague or acknowledged it as a plague, or dealt with it as a plague.

Please know that there is no cure.

Please know that after all this time the amount of money being spent to find a cure is still miniscule, still almost invisible, still impossible to locate in any national health budget, and still totally uncoordinated.

Please know that here in America, case numbers continue to rise in every category. In much of the rest of the world - Russia, India, Southeast Asia, Africa - the numbers of the infected and the dying are so grotesquely high that they are rarely acknowledged.

Please know that all efforts at prevention and education continue their unending record of abject failure.

Please know that there is no one in charge of this plague. This is a war for which there is no general and for which there has never been a general. How can you win a war with no one in charge?

Please know that beginning with Ronald Reagan (who would not say the word 'AIDS' publicly for seven years), every single president has said nothing and done nothing, or in the case of the current president, says the right things and then doesn't do them.

Please know that most medications for HIV/AIDS are inhumanly expensive and that government funding for the poor to obtain them is dwindling and often unavailable.

Please know that the pharmaceutical companies are among the most evil and greedy nightmares ever loosed on humankind. What 'research' they embark upon is calculated only toward finding newer drugs to keep us, just barely, from dying, but not to make us better or, god forbid, cured.

Please know that an awful lot of people have needlessly died and will continue to needlessly die because of any and all of the above.

Please know that the world has suffered at the very least some 75 million infections and 35 million deaths. When the action of the play that you have just seen begins, there were 41.

I have never seen such wrongs as this plague, in all its guises, represents, and continues to say about us all.

A Note From James Edstrom: I agree with every single thing Larry Kramer and Ed Callaghan say. I have lost all my childhood friends, I have lost relatives and most of all, I have lost hope that their will ever be a cure. There is too much money for the drug companies to keep everyone on their pills. If they found a cure, they would lose billions of dollars every month in profits. I just sit here watching friend after friend die. I sit here watching all the suffering that goes along with this horrible disease. I watch on my visits to Cherry Grove in Fire Island. Every summer on my visits to the famed gay mecca, my summer beach friends have disappeared and died from Aids.

I think about what the world would be if we never had Aids. I think of all the laughter I could still have if all my friends did not die. I miss them. I miss Michael, Keith, Joel, Robert and hundreds of other friends that brought joy to my life and brought so much joy to others. I think about the talent lost. The artists, The club promoters that made New York City so much fun and just everyday friends who would brighten up my day. I miss it all. Aids did not just kill my friends, it killed a huge part of me!

Photos By: Walter McBride/Retna