Joel Grey, who starred in the original version of the play at The Public Theater in 1985 after its first leading man Brad Davis was diagnosed with AIDS, directed the all-star cast that included the likes of Joe Mantello, Glenn Close, Victor Garber, Patrick Wilson, Jack McBrayer, Jason Butler Harner, Michael Cerveris, Michael Stuhlbarg, John Benjamin Hickey and Santino Fontana.
Describing what it was like to play Ned Weeks, the heart of The Normal Heart, during a time when the city was almost swept away by the emotional and political tsunami that was the beginning of the AIDS crisis, Grey remarked “[it] was akin to telling a story in the Intensive Care Unit of a hospital.”
Somehow, 25 years later, that sentiment still holds water. A medicinal, empty feeling of sadness overcame many of us in the audience. Don’t get me wrong. It was a beautiful reading, with some amazing performances, namely from Mantello (as Ned Weeks), the prolific Tony-winning director who hasn’t acted on Broadway since 1993’s Angels in America.
But still, many of us left frustrated — how is it that after 25 years many of the ills this profound and epic play admonishes still exist? How is this still normal?
Knowing grumbles emanated from the audience when Close, playing Dr. Emma Brookner, the wheelchair-bound firecracker at the forefront of the epidemic proclaims: “Do you know this is the only country in the industrialized world besides South Africa that doesn’t guarantee health care for everyone?”
The ink's barely dry on that one.
Sighs were heard at the end, when Ned Weeks cried, “When they invited me to Gay Week at Yale, they had a dance in my old college dining hall, just across the campus from that tiny freshman room where I wanted to kill myself.”
Young gay people wanting to kill themselves also remains a sad reality; the recent suicides of Tyler Clementi, Zach Harrington, Seth Walsh, Asher Brown, Billy Lucas and many more are fresh in the memory.
Or when Mickey Marcus (Michael Stuhlbarg) screams, “Maybe if they’d let us get married to begin with none of this would have happened at all!”
It’s 2010, and gay New Yorkers in one of the most progressive, socially liberal states in the Union still don’t have the right to marry.
Of course, the evening wasn’t about hopping on a soapbox. It was about helping two institutions — The Actors Fund and Friends in Deed — whose tireless efforts have supported so many for so long. And help it did — to the tune of approximately $150,000.
The evening ended with Grey leading playwright Larry Kramer out to the stage for a rousing standing ovation. Kramer, co-founder of the Gay Men’s Health Crisis and ACT UP (The AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power), was described in the program by Susan Sontag as “one of America’s most valuable troublemakers.” It seems we still need him to stir up some trouble, when, in 2010, the fight for equality, acceptance and tolerance continues.
[caption id="attachment_3068" align="aligncenter" width="300" caption="Playwright Larry Kramer with Joel Grey, Glenn Close and Joe Mantello looking on"][/caption]
[caption id="attachment_3063" align="aligncenter" width="300" caption="The cast of "The Normal Heart""][/caption]
[caption id="attachment_3041" align="aligncenter" width="300" caption=""The Normal Heart" team, circa 1985 (l–r): playwright Larry Kramer, actor (now director) Joel Grey, director Michael Lindsay-Hogg and producer Joe Papp"][/caption]