When I was younger I loved going to the theatre. Everything moved me; everything made me cry. To a heart that had never been in love, every touch of hands was a breathtaking thrill. To eyes that had never seen death, every body strewn above trap doors was a stone plummeting through the gut. The world of the stage was an expansion of experience—a safe arena in which all elements of human life and feeling might play out and let my insides leap accordingly. But in time, I stopped going to shows and told myself I didn’t have enough money or leisure time to devote to them. In truth, I had become indifferent; I didn’t need to watch people say goodbye on stage when I had done it so many times in my own life. No one could accurately play out the trembling of first infatuations or the subtle aches of loss after I had known them myself. I, who had shed so many vicarious tears, had none left to spare on stories and enactments—had become tired, numb, and removed.
So the stage is set for an evening this past summer, when I was given a ticket to a revival of Larry Kramer’s 1985 play The Normal Heart. The play traces Kramer’s life from 1981 to 1984 when he was right in the middle of the AIDS crisis as it ravaged the gay community and was ignored by the government and all major news and media outlets. By all accounts I should have been excited as I took my seat; I had heard from a number of people that this was the kind of play that changes lives and that Joe Mantello, in the starring role of Ned Weeks, gives a performance that brutally overworks the tear ducts. Instead, I was ready to hand back my playbill and walk back out the theatre door. I was terrified of spending three hours trying to make my eyes well up and wondering why I didn’t feel as much as I was supposed to. Then Joe Mantello walked out on stage. He ranted. He spewed facts and statistics. He was annoying. He argued with everyone. And for all of these flaws, the character he portrayed was profoundly human, a lonely man voicing an unstoppered scream against the establishment that cared so little for the deteriorated bodies and broken hearts of a minority population. As Ned Weeks tried frantically to figure out how an aching heart navigates discrimination, death, unexpected love, and unending frustration, Mantello’s performance cracked me open. It undid the slapstick plaster job I had performed on the fractures of my heart. And this is what art does in skilled hands: it takes the hurt and love we know and finds a way to make it writhe anew within us.
Maybe it’s no use for me to tell you all the merits of a show that has seen the end of its limited run in New York, but I’m pretty confident in saying that The Normal Heart will show its face on stage again. Because it matters. Because the AIDS crisis isn’t over. Because we can’t forget history. But mostly because like so many people before us, we live in a time when the people with money and power neglect the problems of the people without it. And after we find ourselves broken open in the confines of a too-small theatre seat, the curtain goes down, and we walk out into the night. And we do something about it.
- Nora Curry
Image Source: http://media40.wnyc.net/media/photologue/photos/cache/1_The_Normal_Heart_01_storyslide_image.jpg
Video Source: http://www.youtube.com/user/TheNormalHeartBway#p/u/9/xCr3oTGBW10