Lessons yet to be learned

Epic Theatre's 'The Normal Heart'
By BILL RODRIGUEZ  |  October 16, 2013

ON THE CASE Broccoli and Medina. [Photo by Kevin Broccoli]

In the early 1980s, there was a man in New York City who all but shouted from the rooftops that there was an unacknowledged disease killing off his community. By the time Larry Kramer’s 1985 play about those experiences was successful off-Broadway, the HIV-AIDS epidemic could no longer be denied, but the years-long delay in working on a cure had cost countless lives.

The Normal Heart is being staged by Epic Theatre Company (through October 26) in a bare-bones but capable production, directed by Ashley Arnold and Kevin Broccoli.

Broccoli plays the Kramer character, here named Ned Weeks. The account is largely autobiographical, though undoubtedly supplemented by meticulously thought-out expansions on recalled exchanges, but Kramer doesn’t polish his own image, far from it. Weeks comes across as loud and obnoxious, unrelentingly ranting his jeremiad of impending doom.

When the first cases arose in 1981, there were plenty of reasons for no one to listen. The gay community was into bathhouse promiscuity, proudly so, as an assertion of sexual independence. The mayor of New York, Ed Koch, all but ran away from the issue flapping his hands, the rumor mill accusing him of being gay himself. In this account, it takes more than a year to get an appointment with a secretly gay aide of the mayor, Hiram (Jim Shelton), who is no help. The city health department won’t even put out a brochure with a list of symptoms.

After seven deaths in 1982 from tampered-with Tylenol, the FBI would go into overdrive investigating and The New York Times would spend gallons of ink on front page coverage, but the plague striking homosexuals and IV drug users didn’t get immediate high priority (Kramer fails to note in the play that a CDC task force was organized that first year). The same thing went for Legionnaires’ Disease, which the federal government spent millions on and the Times thoroughly reported.

Ned works hard trying to organize a group to inform his community about the threat, but his gay friends are reluctant to get deeply involved. Even Ned’s corporate lawyer brother, Ben (David Alves), won’t help get the organization off the ground; although Ben clearly cares for his brother, he refuses to consider his sexual behavior to be anything but aberrant, if not abhorrent. This was such a fundamental and consequential concern of Kramer that the title of his play derives from it: love, any brand of human love, not being considered normal is an outrage equal to HIV-AIDS having been initially ignored.

The refusal of Ned’s friends, closeted and out, to aid the cause infuriates him to the point of depression. Tommy (Michael Shallcross) is a hospital administrator, but he’s no help. Mickey (Christopher Verieger) writes a health column, but he refuses to sound the alarm. Even more prominent, Felix (Michael Puppi), who writes on style and fashion for the Times, won’t do so, even though most of his interview subjects are gay. Bruce (Dillon Medina) is a Citibank VP, but his boss makes homophobic jokes, so he’d rather be thought of as a former Green Beret, which is equally accurate. Bruce does, however, agree to be president of the awareness-raising organization, since he looks and behaves so straight, but being interviewed on the air by Dan Rather is a bridge too far. His lover Craig (Daniel Larson) becomes an early victim of the disease.

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