In 2010 TimeLine’s literary manager, Ben Thiem, encouraged me and my fellow Company Members to read Larry Kramer’s The Normal Heart. Embarrassingly, initially I made the mistake of assuming that it was a dated play. And then I read it, for the first time.
Like my colleagues, I was completely knocked out, and not just by its political vibrancy and call to action. Larry Kramer crafted one of the great historical dramas of the 20th Century, brimming with heart, courage and humor, and aimed a piercing lens at an era that too many mistakenly think of today as dated. It not only retains its potency since its premiere in 1985, but it’s evolved with age into a searing reminder of how history takes shape before our eyes due to the actions—or inactions—of people like you and me.
TimeLine’s mission is not just about looking backward into history. It’s ultimately about how we look forward.
The Normal Heart takes us back to a time when a fast-spreading plague had no name. It was first referred to as a “rare cancer found in homosexuals,” then “gay-related immunodeficiency syndrome” (GRID). The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention named it “acquired immunodeficiency syndrome” (AIDS) in 1982—a full five years before President Ronald Reagan would ever utter the name in a speech.
During that time scores of deaths were attributed to the disease and fear-inducing rumors spread rampantly about how people could acquire it —from drinking fountains, toilet seats, or, in the case of hemophiliac AIDS patient Ryan White, from just sitting beside him in class. That particular myth initially barred White’s entry to his school in Kokomo, Ind., and elicited a bullet shot into his family’s home.
What Kramer’s play reminds us in 2013 is that while the play’s setting during the 1980s era of misinformation may feel distant in some respects, we mustn’t forget the genesis of the AIDS epidemic and what exacerbated its escalation. In a 2006 interview the playwright said: “A very strange thing has happened in the post-AIDS generation. I don’t know what to call them; it’s not really post-AIDS, but let’s call them healthier, younger ones … They don’t want to know the history; they don’t want to acknowledge that the people who died were even part of their history … These people died so that you could live.”
TimeLine’s mission is not just about looking backward into history. It’s ultimately about how we look forward. It’s about igniting dialogue about how the past informs the present. During our Company’s 2010 discussion about The Normal Heart, it was immediately clear that this was a TimeLine story, urgent to tell even in the midst of an encouraging new era of civil rights advances.
But our ability to do The Normal Heart right away was put on hold by the emergence of a star-studded reading of the play in New York, followed by a highly acclaimed Broadway production—which received the Tony Award for Best Revival of a Play—and rumors of a national tour that ultimately never materialized in Chicago. So here we are, after patiently waiting, bringing you a Chicago revival of Kramer’s play.
Since TimeLine first became interested in producing this play in 2010, there has been much progress for LGBT rights in the United States. But there are still a disturbing number of stories of intolerance, discrimination, fear, shame and death—both in our country and beyond.
And despite medical advances, we are far from being a post-AIDS generation. According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, as of October 13 there are approximately 1.1 million people living with HIV/AIDS in the United States, and almost one-fifth them are unaware that they have it. Since the start of the epidemic, 1.7 million Americans have been infected with HIV and more than 650,000 have died of AIDS.
That’s just our country.
Worldwide, there were about 2.5 million new cases of HIV in 2011, and about 34.2 million people are living with HIV around the world. In 2010, there were about 1.8 million AIDS deaths. Nearly 30 million people with AIDS have died since the epidemic began.
These are numbers you may have seen countless times, perhaps with numbing effect. Yet strings of facts and figures—breathtakingly large as they may be—often don’t pack the same punch as when the disease’s carnage is felt more personally through a human face. And that is what Larry Kramer boldly and unapologetically did in 1985 with The Normal Heart. He put a face on not just the devastation, but also on the fight. And the face he put on it was his own, embodied in the play’s chief antagonist Ned Weeks.
We mustn’t forget the genesis of the AIDS epidemic and what exacerbated its escalation.
Kramer has never shied from a fight or debate, nor sugar-coated any blistering criticism—whether it was about others in the gay community or those outside it. He calls it like he sees it, and for decades his crusade has been a relentless indictment of silence, inaction and being closeted. Even during the heralded Broadway run of the play in 2011—26 years after his play’s argument began—Kramer was often a fixture on the sidewalk outside the theatre, handing out flyers as the audience came out, passionately urging them to learn more and do more.
We don’t have the benefit of his presence on the Belmont Avenue sidewalk outside Stage 773 each night, but we hope you’ll still experience his urging through this play.
I am incredibly proud to welcome an astonishing team of artists to this production, led on stage by one of Chicago’s finest provocateurs, David Cromer, embodying Kramer’s impassioned agitator, Ned Weeks. And at the helm, we have another of our city’s finest provocateurs, TimeLine’s Associate Artistic Director Nick Bowling, once again infusing new electricity into a play from the past that is about how we get to tomorrow.