Entertainment

Three decades on, ‘The Normal Heart’ beats in Charlotte

What are we gonna do about all these gay people?

That question has been asked for 90 years, from the first stirrings of the Society for Human Rights in Chicago to debates over policy at recent Charlotte City Council meetings. Nobody has ever asked it with more fury and persistence than Larry Kramer.

Too much fury, in fact, for some theatergoers. Kramer’s “The Normal Heart” exploded onto the New York theater scene 30 years ago next month. Though it became the longest-running play in the history of Joe Papp’s Public Theatre, it never transferred to Broadway until an acclaimed 2011 version, which won a Tony for best revival of a play.

And no Charlotte theater has dared to produce it until this weekend. It opens Friday at Theatre Charlotte in a production directed by Dennis Delamar, which was inspired by the 2011 run.

“A couple of people on our play advisory committee saw that production. Then I read the script, and I was really moved,” says TC executive director Ron Law. “Our mission calls for us to do plays that are accessible and relevant to people of the Charlotte region. The play deals specifically with the beginning of the AIDS crisis, but the passion and fight are still relevant in 2015.”

“Passion” and “fight” were two words applied to Kramer, who’ll turn 80 this June. He had already written the controversial 1978 novel “Faggots” and co-founded the Gay Men’s Health Crisis group (which later booted him out) when “Heart” opened to mostly positive reviews.

In it, he lambasted everyone he blamed for the failure to address the sudden spread of AIDS: New York City Mayor Ed Koch, a complacent medical establishment, the mainstream media, even the gay community that preferred to let the death toll mount rather than call attention to itself.

Main character Ned Weeks, a writer based on Kramer, nurses a lover dying of an unnamed disease; a doctor confined to a wheelchair by polio speaks out against the disease, but few other characters take action. All were based on people Kramer knew, including Ned’s quietly homophobic brother, an attorney. (Arthur Kramer, Larry’s brother, did indeed practice law.)

William Hoffman’s “As Is” struck a gentler tone in its look at gay people dying of the disease. It opened a month before Kramer’s play, found a home on Broadway and made its way to many regional companies. (TC, then known as Little Theatre of Charlotte, produced it in 1987.)

Until four years ago, Kramer’s play seemed too incendiary to touch. But as New York Times critic Ben Brantley noted of the revival, “What emerges so stirringly ... is its empathy with people lost in a war in which they have no rules, no map, no weapons. Everyone’s flailing, everyone behaves badly, and everyone is, if not likable, at least understandable. There is no rationing of compassion here, even for the enemy.”

Says Law, “There’s more to this play than people remember. It’s more than a cry of ‘We’re dying! Pay attention to us!’ It’s a play about equality.

“If AIDS hadn’t first surfaced in the gay community, it would have been dealt with immediately. But it was considered ‘the gay cancer,’ and it took a long time for Koch and (president) Ronald Reagan to acknowledge it. Then it crossed (same-sex) boundaries and became a bigger issue that had to be dealt with.”

The theater sponsored a roundtable for its young cast two weeks ago with people who’d had first-hand experience of the 1980s, including a bartender from a gay bar who saw many friends and patrons die. The troupe found a sponsor in Different Roads Home, a Huntersville-based nonprofit that provides personalized services to people with HIV/AIDS, cancer and other chronic illnesses.

Law says TC isn’t getting any more turnbacks than usual from season-ticket holders, and advance ticket sales are running equal to the more mainstream “Harvey” and almost equal to the beloved “To Kill a Mockingbird.”

“Thirty years later, the play reaches a different audience,” he says. “I read a poll that said 56 percent of people now support same-sex marriage, while only 11 percent did in the 1980s. The audience today will have a bigger cross-section of attitudes and demographics. The play won’t shock us, but it’ll stir us up – and that’s what theater ought to do.”

Toppman: 704-358-5232

PREVIEW

‘The Normal Heart’

Larry Kramer’s provocative play about the perilous life of gay men in the early 1980s gets its local debut from Theatre Charlotte.

WHEN: Through April 4 at 7:30 p.m. Thursday, 8 p.m. Friday, 8 p.m. Saturday and 2:30 p.m. Sunday. Also 7:30 p.m. April 1.

WHERE: Theatre Charlotte, 501 Queens Road.

TICKETS: $27.

DETAILS: 704-372-1000; theatercharlotte.org.

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