What a difference 25 (plus) years make.
When the original production of Larry Kramer's The Normal Heart opened at the Public Theater in 1985, reviews were decidedly mixed. Even those who found much to admire in Kramer's angry, unsparing and moving cri de coeur about the early days of the AIDS crisis expressed reservations. But when The Normal Heart premiered on Broadway in 2011, critics were rhapsodic in their praise. The production went on to win the Tony Award for Best Revival of a Play.
Kramer attributes the different responses to the passage of time. "Originally, the play was considered agitprop, which, in fact, it was," he says, laughing. "Now it's considered a history play. Everything I said in the play has come true, and you react to that in an entirely different way."
On June 8 this acclaimed production, directed by George C. Wolfe — whom Kramer calls "the most magical director" — begins at Arena Stage in Washington, DC, where it will run through July 29. This marks the first time that The Normal Heart is being presented in the nation's capital. The engagement coincides with the International AIDS Conference; Arena Stage is inviting politicians and delegates to the conference to see the play. The plan is for this to be the first stop of a national tour (an engagement at San Francisco's American Conservatory Theatre has been announced for Sept. 13-Oct. 7), but thus far no other dates have been secured. "If anyone can make it happen it's Daryl Roth, who produced the play on Broadway and is passionate about it," says Kramer. Kramer's activism led him to help found the Gay Men's Health Crisis; his stridency and confrontational style led to his ouster from the organization. But his in-your-face approach as both an activist and a writer has effected change. Young men who knew little or nothing of what life was like for a gay man in the '80s have stopped Kramer on the street to say that the play has opened their eyes. "And old timers come up to me and say, 'Thank you for what you do. I listened to you in 1982, and I'm still alive.'"
Earlier this year, Frank Bruni wrote a column in The New York Times about how gay activists, including Kramer, deserve recognition for "advancing the acceptance of gay people." Bruni expressed his hope for the future, and spoke of the advances in medicine for people living with HIV. Asked if he shares Bruni's hope, Kramer says, "By nature, I'm an optimistic person." Really? "No one believes it, but I am. I hope for the best, and expect the worst. Until I read Frank Bruni's piece, I hadn't realized that activism had something to do with making gay people more visible. And that's hopeful.
"But I'm not very hopeful on the treatment/cure front. Everybody says that these drugs are wonderful. Well, they are but they're not. Every two weeks you feel terrible, and no one ever talks about that. And the drugs are very expensive. I have one drug that costs close to $20,000 each time I have to get it, which is every couple of months. I'm lucky I have insurance; most of the world doesn't. And there are something like 5,000 new patients each day, so how you put a good face on that, I don't know."
But he presses on, still fighting the good fight. "I'm not happy about the system but I'm happy that I have the energy to fight it," he says. "I feel like some editor-in-chief said in 1981, 'Kramer, this is your story. Run with it.'"
And so he has.
(This feature appears in the June 2012 subscription issue of Playbill magazine.)