For the error bred in the bone
Of each woman and each man
Craves what it cannot have,
Not universal love,
But to be loved alone.
W.H. Auden wrote these lines about the "normal heart" in his poem September 1, 1939, his disapproving reaction to the outbreak of World War II.
Playwright Larry Kramer was inspired by the poem, which was where he got the name for his searing play about the dawning days of the AIDS epidemic. The Normal Heart, directed by Larry Silverberg, opens Saturday at Freefall Theatre in St. Petersburg.
The play tackles the politics and societal responses of the disease in early 1980s New York when it didn't even have a name. It is largely autobiographical, told through writer-activist Ned Weeks, played by Freefall artistic director Eric Davis. The play unfolds as Weeks tries to organize a group of gay men to raise awareness about AIDS. The men are similar in some ways but different in many others.
The political and societal overtones are strong, but at its core, The Normal Heart is about love, relationships and the quest and need for acceptance. Its universal message is what has kept the work alive, despite being rooted in a very specific time.
The play was controversial when it premiered Off-Broadway in 1985, and a revival in 2011 won a Tony. HBO has made a movie of The Normal Heart, starring Mark Ruffalo, Julia Roberts and Jim Parsons, which will debut May 1. Last week, the cable channel announced that it will produce a sequel, also written by Kramer.
Davis says that people remember the time from different points of view, and while there are a handful of stories played out on stage, there were thousands in real life. Advancements in treatment have made the disease manageable for many patients today, but in the early 1980s, it was a death sentence.
Freefall's cast, some of whom were young children in the early 1980s, put in quite a bit of research time to understand the climate of the era.
"We had to put ourselves in that time," Davis said. "There are a lot of correlations made in the play to the Holocaust. There was a fear of people being put into camps." He recounted efforts to pass laws that would require infected people to be identified with tattoos or to corral patients in WWII-style internment camps.
"This is an important part of our history," Davis said. And, he added, while we've come a long way, people living with AIDS are still stigmatized and family acceptance remains a struggle.
"We ask audience members to listen with an open heart," he said. "When they are hearing some of the things that will bring up their own prejudices, the ultimate question should be does one deserve to die for these things and does society ignore huge swaths of society because they don't understand them?"
Filmmaker Leigh Simons, who saw the original play in New York, has been filming the Freefall actors in rehearsals for a three-part documentary. (The first episode can be seen at freefalltheatre.com.) Simons says that while the audience goes through a visceral journey during the play, the cast also deals with their own emotional battles.
"I have found being on stage for rehearsals, it's a love story," Simons said. "Historically it's such an important piece, and the evolution of the characters is amazing."
Janet K. Keeler can be reached at [email protected]