"The Normal Heart" continues raising awareness after 25 years
Phoebe from the hit TV show "Friends" and Dr. McNamara from the equally popular "Nip/Tuck" were arguing about the lack of AIDS awareness when she called him a big mouth. "Is that a symptom?" he asked. "No," she said, "It's a cure." To commemorate the 25th anniversary of "The Normal Heart," Westwood's Geffen Playhouse hosted a star-studded script reading for a one-night-only charity event, directed by original cast member Joel Grey.
The reading was packed with contemporary celebrities like "Friends'" Lisa Kudrow and "Nip/Tuck" star Dylan Walsh. The rest of the cast included "The Closer's" Jon Tenney, Clark Gregg from the blockbuster film "Iron Man 2," and David Eigenberg of "Sex and the City" fame, to name a few. But the casts' altruism far outweighed its celebrity: Each of the actors had cleared their schedules to be a big mouth for AIDS.
Let's back up a little: In the early 1980s, faced with a mysteriously fatal disease that seemed to specifically target homosexuals, medical authorities began investigating what they called Gay-Related Immune Deficiency. When the infections continued spreading and killing, they realized their narrow-minded mistake and renamed the illness 4H Virus, which they felt more accurately described its propensity for flourishing in communities with "Haitians, hemophiliacs, heroin addicts, and homosexuals."
It wasn't until June 5, 1981, after over 100 people had already died from the virus, that the Center for Disease Control finally declared an epidemic, and they did so only because the victims of this mysterious virus were no longer exclusively homosexuals, immigrants, or junkies. Anyone, it now seemed, was susceptible to this outbreak, and so it was finally given the non-discriminatory name Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome (AIDS). Despite all of this, the epidemic went largely ignored by the media.
In 1985, outraged by the media's negligence, and claiming the AIDS epidemic was "intentionally allowed to happen," Larry Kramer wrote the play "The Normal Heart."
The play was originally written and debuted while this crisis was still gripping gay communities from New York to Miami to LA. The plot was not a terrifying hypothetical scenario, but a tragic transcription of the people and events that were permanently affected when closeted homosexuals refused to publicize the media's discrimination, and when the media refused to publicize the gay community's disease.
"By our silence, we have helped murder each other," said Kramer.
Case in point: In 1982, a "Tylenol scare" took seven lives, garnering 54 New York Times articles in just three months. But over the 19 months following the Center for Disease Control's announcement of an immune deficiency epidemic, The Times only published seven articles about the AIDS crisis. Over 1,000 Americans had perished by then.
While it was a cold reading with no sets, no costumes and no rehearsals, performed by jet-lagged actors on an empty stage, the spirit of the show's message more than compensated for the underwhelming performance. Actors like Eigenberg acknowledged that it was the message, not the performance, that was paramount. "If you listen to it, it works itself. I was in New York in '84 and '85 – and friends were dying," said Eigenberg. "It's not, it wasn't, and it's still not completely resolved."