Once in a while a show comes along that defines a generation, that pushes the boundaries, and changes the minds and even the lives of people. Every so often I see a show that not only I enjoy but that I feel changed by; The Normal Heart did that for me.
Set in the early 1980’s, The Normal Heart follows the life of Ned Weeks, a gay writer and activist who has been investigating a new disease (HIV/AIDS) infecting gay men in New York City. Ned is introduced to a doctor, Emma Brookner, who has had an astounding number of gay patients present with this unknown virus. The play follows Ned as he becomes an activist for this unidentified virus, as he deals with the virus in his personal life, and as he and his friends struggle to educate the public and government, who refuse to listen, who refuse to help, and have turned a blind eye.
I first heard about this show when it began its run on Broadway in April 2011. I wasn’t 100% sure what the show fully entailed, but I knew it dealt with the AIDS crisis and the cast looked fabulous. After the big wins at the Tony Awards that year I knew I had to see the show before it closed.
Without giving anything away I can say I was not disappointed, in fact, my mind was blown away. By the end of the first act I was already feeling chills. The acting was phenomenal and the story was completely fascinating. Before the second act began I overheard a fellow audience member say “The usher said get ready for the 2nd act, it gets heavy,” and let me tell you, it does. I think for the last 30 minutes tears were streaming down my face. I can honestly say I have never cried during live theatre. That’s not to say that I haven’t felt emotion towards a show, but because I am usually good at separating myself from the show and the characters. This show I was not prepared. I wasn’t the only one as the muffled sounds of cries and sniffles were audible through out the entire theatre.
By the end of the show I was an emotional wreck. At the beginning of the play forty names are showcased on the back wall of the stage signifying the first to perish from the virus and by the end thousands and thousands of names were projected onto all the theatre walls, showing a small percentage of those who have died since 1981. I knew a good amount about HIV/AIDS from past research, but nothing prepared me for what was in this show.
I got the lucky chance to be able to see the staged production one more time when it toured through Washington, DC. The cast was different, the venue was different, but the show still held that powerful punch it presented on Broadway. Knowing the story and the characters didn’t matter, my emotions were running as high as the first time I had seen it. I was blown away again, unable to hold in my fervid emotions. I had been changed for the better because of this show and had wished everyone had the opportunity to see this once in their lifetime.
When HBO announced that Ryan Murphy would be adapting Larry Kramer’s play to the small screen I was overwrought with a mix of excitement, apprehension, and nerves. I hoped they could recreate the passion the stage produced and the raw scenes that tore into its viewers. Either way, I couldn’t wait. I had been waiting to share with people what I had been gushing about for several years.
The movie didn’t disappoint. Being so attached to the staged version I found the opening a little jarring. But this was a movie and not a minimalist show taking place live. I opened my mind up to the changes and watched as the work I had raved about transpired on my television screen. The most important aspects of the show were kept in tact; my heart broke as Felix revealed his positive status, I gripped my blanket tight as Bruce recounted his journey to return the body of his sick and dying boyfriend to his mother and his battle with hospitals, and as Emma fought so hard to gain recognition for her work and research.
The performances were top notch. Mark Ruffalo portrayed Ned’s egotism and selfishness with a hint of awkwardness in a way that made you empathize easily with his cause. Matt Bomer’s Felix was tragic, his astounding weight loss added to the distressing journey his character takes from start to finish. Taylor Kitsch strayed from his known role as Tim Riggins from Friday Night Lights as he gave Bruce that sympathy and fear of someone who was so scared to step out of the closet and publicly out himself as a leader. Julia Robert’s nailed her monologue as a stressed and tired doctor who had fought for years for funding and for the acknowledgement she deserved. All the performances had their shining moments, especially Joe Mantello, who played Ned Weeks in the 2011 Broadway revival, as he took on the role of Mickey. His part was smaller yet packed a punch as he recounted his suicidal thoughts and fears.
The last moments of the movie were as powerful as ever as Ned and Felix pledged their everlasting love to each other, a love that would survive death. Ned’s older and sometimes close-minded brother looked on with a new view of the world and Emma watched as she knew her work truly did mean everything to the people closest to her. The culmination of the events of the movie were wrapped up into a last few minutes that would stay with you for a long time.
Though the changes between the stage version and the movie were evident, such as the names displayed through the theater (replaced by Tommy Boatwright’s (Jim Parsons) saving of his rolodex cards), the impact of the show stayed, presenting an audience with a gritty early 80s in the gay community as men and women fought to discover what the “gay cancer” was that was killing off more and more by the day.
To say that The Normal Heart is an important piece of work is an understatement. To say that many predjudices within the play and movie still ring true today is a travesty, but true. The world is still fighting to discover the origins of HIV/AIDS. The world is still fighting to find a cure, a vaccine, an eradication. People in this world still refuse to accept and refuse to help. The brutal truth is that we are still struggling as a nation in 2014 and to win a war, you have to start one.