It’s not lightweight stuff. A conversation on a recent evening about “The Normal Heart,” playwright Larry Kramer’s 1985 dispatch from the front lines of the AIDS crisis in New York, is dotted with troubling statistics and sometimes slips into hushed tones.
Sitting around a table before rehearsal, three actors and their director talk about the challenge of a play that mixes its taut, politically motivated tension with an emotionally vivid enactment of the confusion and grief surrounding the outbreak of an epidemic.
“It does what I love about theater, where it mixes a political and a personal message together, and that personal story also happens to be about love and loss,” says David J. Miller, artistic director of Zeitgeist Stage Company and director of its current production of “The Normal Heart,” which opened Friday.
The play summons the uncertainty surrounding the emergence of a little-understood ailment that did not yet have a name — the terms “AIDS” and “HIV” never appear in the script — and the sometimes-heated disagreements, among those most affected, over how to respond.
Originally produced in New York when much of that confusion and disagreement was still painfully fresh, the play today seems tragically prescient. In its first scene, set in 1981, a doctor predicts that over a thousand patients will have the condition within a year. As of 2009, there were 33.3 million people living with HIV/AIDS, according to the National Institutes of Health.
“It’s kind of the seminal work of the gay theater,” Miller says.
Kramer’s gay rights activism is as much a part of his body of work as his writing, which has often challenged prevailing attitudes among his peers in that community. He based “The Normal Heart” on his own experiences cofounding — and, later, being kicked out of — the nonprofit group Gay Men’s Health Crisis, which provided services for people with HIV/AIDS.
A 2011 Broadway revival won a Tony, and a film version featuring Mark Ruffalo and Julia Roberts is now in the works. Yet the play hasn’t been professionally produced in Boston since the now-defunct Triangle Theatre Company mounted it in its 1987-88 season, according to Zeitgeist.
“As much as it’s a warning shot about the disease and its implications, it’s also a social commentary on how gays were treated in the early ’80s, especially with respect to this virus,” says Victor Shopov, who plays the character Ned Weeks, a stand-in for Kramer. “The prevailing public opinion seemed to be, ‘This is a gay disease. We don’t care.’ ”
Based on Kramer’s own experiences, the action surrounds Ned’s outspoken and sometimes abrasive efforts to rally his community — and also attract the attention and interest of the mainstream press and city government. Even among some of Ned’s activist friends, there’s great concern about coming out of the closet or even sending out mailings that identify their organization as one concerned with gay issues. Things are complicated by Ned’s problematic relationship with his straight brother, and an emerging romance that commingles his public activism and private love life.
Miller says he recalls how difficult it was to get information in the years when The New York Times ran thorough coverage of the fear over Tylenol poisonings but gave short shrift to the lethal virus. He lived in Burlington, Vt., at the time and relied on a friend’s subscription to the New York
Native, a gay-themed newspaper referenced in the play.
“I remember a group of us sitting around his kitchen table while he read articles aloud about the new ‘gay cancer,’ ” Miller recalls, “and that’s how we were getting information. Because that’s all there was. The mainstream press wasn’t reporting it.”
In her onstage role as one of the first doctors who specialized in treating patients with the mysterious new ailment, Maureen Adduci is able to draw upon her own experiences as an anesthesiologist working in Boston hospitals during the early years of the AIDS crisis. She remembers the profound uncertainty of the era, manifested by newly introduced hygiene standards that protected medical personnel at the risk of stigmatizing patients.
In a brutal monologue near the end of the play, one character describes his difficulty removing the body of a deceased friend from the hospital because no one on the staff there was willing to touch it.
“Prior to AIDS, all of our sterile technique was about protecting the patient from the caregiver,” Adduci says. “Once AIDS came into being, it turned the other way — the caregiver had to be protected from the patient at all times. Initially that went right down to the ‘spacesuits’ with goggles. With the first few patients that came through, I remember apologizing to them for the way we were dressed.”
Joey Pelletier, who plays a closeted New York Times fashion reporter in Zeitgeist’s production, has written a play about the contemporary impact of HIV/AIDS. Though “The Normal Heart” is very much a period piece, Pelletier says it offers a reminder of the dangers of complacency in the face of an epidemic that continues to rage.
“It tells you it’s a real thing and we should still be talking about it, and we should still be focusing on a cure and safe sex and all those weapons against the disease. I’ve talked to teens, and they say, ‘Why should we really worry about AIDS?’ I don’t think they understand the impact.”
The stage design of the original production included text and statistics about AIDS; with projections, Miller plans to juxtapose contemporary numbers with the early-1980s figures. When the play begins, there have been 41 reported deaths from AIDS.
Current estimates of the total begin at more than 25 million.
Though this global context clearly informs the play, its focus is on the very personal story Kramer told — about himself, his friends, and his loved ones. Beneath its social context, it is ultimately unified by a sentiment expressed in the last line of a 1939 W. H. Auden poem, from which Kramer took the play’s name: “We must love one another or die.”