Larry Kramer's angry drama, The Normal Heart, about the frightening early days of the AIDS crisis in New York City, began downtown at The Public Theater in 1985, years before George C. Wolfe came and went as artistic director there. But it's somehow fitting that he was asked to co-direct the Broadway premiere of Kramer's play (sharing credit with Joel Grey, whose recent concert presentation inspired this production). Wolfe's connection to The Public's fearless tradition of politically charged plays made him a natural candidate. He also has a history with the leading man of the production, Joe Mantello, who played Louis Ironson in Wolfe's Broadway production of Tony Kushner's Angels in America (both parts). In The Normal Heart, Mantello — who, since Angels, has risen to become an A-list American director — plays the role of AIDS activist Ned Weeks, modeled on Kramer, who founded Gay Men's Health Crisis.
Under Wolfe, the Grey script-in-hand Normal Heart has been expanded to a full staging in a white-box set by David Rockwell, now at the Golden Theatre. Wolfe, Grey, Mantello and the production itself (along with featured players John Benjamin Hickey and Ellen Barkin) are Tony-nominated this year. Tears, laughter and a kind of mourning commingle in the venue eight times a week. We snagged a few minutes with Wolfe, who talked about the plangent emotion of The Normal Heart.
It occurs to me there's a whole generation that doesn't know what happened in the '80s at the dawn of the AIDS plague.
George C. Wolfe: Absolutely.
It's theatre's responsibility, in a way, to inform. Is that why you wanted to be involved?
GW: I think it's one of the reasons. I thought it was interesting: I thought, "Okay, we can help bring this story to young people who don't know certain information," and particularly there's a new crop of young people out there who are being foolish and reckless with their lives, and with their health, and I think that is happening in a very powerful way. But I think there is another phenomenon that is taking place, which is: it's allowing people who lived through that time to re-experience it, and to grieve, and to release, in a way. At one point, there's a line that Ned says, which is, "too much death," and I think those of us who lived through that time there was too much death, and a part of us shut down in order to survive. And going back and revisiting it now — because it's a play and the structure — it's allowing a release that wouldn't happen otherwise.
GW: Absolutely! Totally. And you see it on Broadway. You see its effect on Broadway. Absolutely.
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