There are many times when no one will listen.
Heeds, warnings and cries for help and change go unheard. In the early 1980s, it was no different as a new disease — an unknown “cancer” — became an epidemic. It was AIDS before it was AIDS. It was known as the “gay cancer,” and those meant to help and heal the affected continued to ignore the crisis.
All of this and more is portrayed and presented in “The Normal Heart,” a powerful play that tells the message of AIDS awareness that still resonates 30 years after its debut in 1985.
FreeFall Theatre in St. Petersburg will open this production Saturday, and it will run through Feb. 16. Creative director Eric Davis says it may be the most important production of the theater’s season.
“It’s not just a gay work or play,” says Davis, who also stars as main character Ned Weeks. “We have a broad audience at freeFall, and everyone will get to see one of the most important plays of the 20th century. It probably paved the way for other gay plays, but it’s more than that. It’s an incredible piece that delivers an important message.”
When Larry Kramer, the outspoken author, health advocate and LGBT activist, first penned the unabashed indictment of the politics surrounding the AIDS epidemic and it was first performed, it was shockingly topical. Set from 1981-84, it follows Weeks, played by Davis, and his close-knit group of friends, who mount warnings and protests to government leaders, health-care officials and mainstream media that, in the end, fall on deaf ears.
“Shouting into darkness means no one was listening,” Davis says. “Back then, it was a convenient side effect that gay men were dying because of it and no one cared. All of Kramer’s characters and story are based on real people in New York City. No one will listen to them as the epidemic takes over. Even the doctor portrayed can’t grasp how the disease works.”
FreeFall’s production also stars Jim Sorensen, Dick Baker, Larry Alexander, Gavin Esham, Mark Chandler, Rob Maus and Justin Gordon. Weeks is a fictionalized version of Kramer. A pamphlet update on those portrayed in the play and its author will be passed to the audience at the conclusion of the play.
Larry Silverberg directs this local production that was revived by its return to Broadway in 2011, garnering three Tony Awards. Because of its rejuvenated popularity, HBO turned “The Normal Heart” into a movie, due out in May, starring Mark Ruffalo and Julie Roberts.
“The play came out when they were still working on the disease, which, back then, was very different to what it was today,” Davis says. “In the play, it doesn’t have a name, no one knows a thing about it, wild rumors about it go flying everywhere, especially in the gay community; and this is about (the characters’) battle to get the word out.”
With its moving lines and scenes, Davis realizes that more people will hear and heed the play’s message.
“The message is always there, but it’s not overt to the audience — it just resonates with them,” Davis says. “It’s an AIDS message that is still important to this day because there are still people out there that need awareness about AIDS. Everything I choose for our season is the cream of the crop, but this … this is just an important American play.”
Correspondent Mike Camunas can be reached at [email protected] and follow him on Twitter @MikeCamunas.