Watching helplessly as burgeoning numbers of their friends and lovers die from AIDs, the characters in Larry Kramer’s powerful The Normal Heart look to everything for answers — from the secrets of the cosmos to African chimps, and, even, float the theory that the U.S. government has been secretly testing anti-immune-system drugs on gays — in a fruitless search for answers.
In recognition of World AIDS Day (observed on Dec. 1), the talented group of local actors, artists and activists known as Asheville on Broadway is presenting this often-harrowing dramatic look inside the early days of the virus.
All the proceeds raised from the production of The Normal Heart, along with those of a silent auction to be held on opening night, will go toward providing necessities, such as food, medication and emergency funds for rent and electricity, to people living with HIV/AIDs in the Asheville area.
The Normal Heart relies on grace, grit — and even wit — to illuminate the enormity of the human devastation inflicted by AIDs since its beginning … and to reveal just how sadly little was known about it early on.
Set in New York City in 1982, the play unfolds as the first men begin dying from complications brought on by the yet-unnamed virus. We watch the gay community struggle with its own lack of leadership — attempting to obtain funding for research, running into brick walls while trying to educate the public about the dangers of the virus, and suffering from inconsistent medical treatments offered by different clinics.
In a particularly touching moment, the lover of one dying man — when asked about his own health — replies, “Why? Is this contagious?”
Greg Haller plays the lead role of Ned Weeks, a gay man brave enough — with the help of Dr. Emma Brookner (Becky Stone), who has put herself smack-dab in the middle of the controversy without apology to anyone — to confront his community about its promiscuity in the face of the growing epidemic.
“What are you, a closet straight?” asks Mickey Marcus (Mike Zullo), after Ned warns that unprotected sex could kill him. And Ned struggles with his own conflicting feelings after finding a lover, a New York Times fashion editor named Felix Turner (Parker Poole). “I’m afraid to be with him and afraid to be without him,” Ned laments.
Ned organizes a gay political-action organization, but he’s promptly removed as its executive director because of his outspoken, provocative nature — and replaced by Bruce Niles (Brent Pack), a former Green Beret who lives in fear of losing his high-profile corporate job if he’s “outed.”
The play accurately depicts New York City officials as reluctant to declare a medical emergency, even though more than 500 cases of AIDS had been reported in that metropolis in 1982 — with increasing numbers of suicides adding to the fatalities. “We can’t respond to every little outbreak the [Centers for Disease Control] come up with. The mayor thinks you’re overreacting,” a city press secretary, Hiram Keebler (Jerime Estill), tells a group of protesters.
A Southern transplant, Tommy Boatright (Bob Cook), concludes with poignant humor, “There’s gonna be a lot of mothers flying into town wondering why their sons have up and died from pneumonia.”
Other cast members include Charles Pittman, David Hopes and Jeff Bachar. The production is directed by Kermit Brown; Ellen Pfirrman acts as stage manager, assisted by Bob Cook.
The Normal Heart offers no happy ending. However, the play’s remarkably strong characters manage to find light until the very end of the tunnel.
Silent auction speaks volumes
A silent auction, which will be held immediately before the Dec. 3 performance of The Normal Heart, will feature a wide array of items — 65 in all — ranging from artwork to celebrity autographs. Local artists whose pieces will be on the bidding block include Jane Peiser, Steven Forbes-Desoule, Ernie Howard, Shane Fero, Will Ruggles and Douglass Rankin. Other up-for-grabs gems include bed-and-breakfast weekend-getaway packages, two “mystery” items signed by Elton John, handmade jewelry, antiques, pottery, glass and porcelain, specialty wines, Native American artwork, and posters signed by stars of such Broadway hits as Miss Saigon, The Lion King, Angels In America and Cabaret.