December 6, 2012
When the cast and production crew of The Normal Heart discussed the potential impact of their performance upon the audience, they hoped it would spark conversation about AIDS Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome— and raise awareness about its ongoing lethality. Those involved in the production, however, truly underestimated just how revealing and heartbreaking the production would prove to be.
On Friday, Nov. 30 and Saturday, Dec. 1 (World AIDS Day), Hamilton students moved audience members to tears with their production of Larry Kramer’s semi-autobiographical play, The Normal Heart, which follows the rise of the HIV/AIDS crisis in New York City between 1981 and 1984, as seen through the perspective of Ned Weeks, a gay writer and founder of a prominent HIV advocacy group. In addition to examining the rise of AIDS, the prejudices towards homosexuality and identity struggles, the play also, in the words of director Lauren Lanzotti ’14, “teaches us about the consequences of fear, waiting and disunity.” Thus, such a play is highly relevant to modern times, during which gay rights and health care maintain prominence in political discourse.
Lanzotti said, “It is imperative for college students to educate themselves about their health and what they can do to stay safe, whether they choose to partake in sexual activity or not…Though we are very fortunate to have good medical care and education in the United States, we are in no way safe from HIV and AIDS just because we live in an advanced, Western culture. AIDS and HIV is still a problem in New York, as are most other sexually transmitted diseases, and Americans tend to forget that.” When she learned of Kramer’s revival of The Normal Heart in 2011, Lanzotti was inspired to direct her own production of the play at Hamilton College in order to raise funds to help AIDS organizations.
Even before the play commenced, Hamilton students and community members in attendance were prepared for an emotional experience. Upon arrival, audience members were provided with a program listing the dramatic statistics of HIV/AIDS.
Additionally, attendees were given a dramaturgical letter from the playwright himself in order to inform the audience that the events performed throughout the play and several central characters are based upon those in Kramer’s own life. In this letter, Kramer addressed the severity of AIDS through tragic pleas for awareness, saying, “Please know that AIDS is a worldwide plague…that no country in the world, including this one, especially this one, has ever called it a plague, or dealt with it as a plague…that there is still no cure.”
The organization of the performance space itself kept the viewers constantly aware of the gravity of AIDS. Scattered about the front of the stage were notecards upon which the names of those whose lives were taken by AIDS were written. As the play continued, the pile grew larger and larger, creating an unavoidable reminder of just how severe and fatal the disease is; the heap of cards seemed to serve as a silent plea for the cure that millions are still desperately waiting to come.
The Normal Heart began with a reading of W.H. Auden’s poem “September 1, 1939”, in which he states, “We must love one another or die.” While the intention of Auden’s poem was to express his feelings towards the outbreak of World War II and describe its implications to the future of humanity, its message of unity powerfully connects to the play’s underlying themes of the importance of communication and understanding. Auden’s statement lingered in viewers’ thoughts as the action of the play officially commenced.
In just the first scene, Kramer presents the audience with the grim reality that is AIDS; the shock of diagnosis, the agony of not knowing if a cure would be found, and the sudden turmoil of an AIDS victim’s painful death. Though The Normal Heart contained some moments of comic relief, the heartrending awareness of AIDS persisted throughout the entire production.
Nathan Goebel ’15 and Shea Crockett ’15, the actors cast in the respective leading roles of Ned Weeks and Felix Turner, represented the development of two conflicts in the play: the need for social acceptance and understanding for homosexuality and the emotional and physical demise of a victim of AIDS. Ned Weeks, the almost unlikable hero and central figure of the play, is the angry and relentless founder of an organization dedicated to informing gay men of AIDS and pressuring the government to find a cure.
Despite the character’s aggressive personality, Goebel defends the man he portrays, explaining that “a lot of his insecurities come from feelings of inadequacy, based on the way he feels he has been treated his whole life because of something so powerfully internalized as his sexuality. He feels oppressed.” Watching Crockett’s character of Felix slowly and painfully succumb to AIDS was definitely one of the most devastating aspects of the play. Though the audience was brought to tears through the actor’s performance, he himself states that the role took a toll upon himself.
He explained, “Felix was the most challenging role I have ever played. What was truly terrifying about AIDS in the ’80s was that no one knew how to treat it or where it came from. In playing the role of Felix I found deep gratitude and respect for the people who suffered from AIDS without any idea what was happening to their bodies.”
By the end of the production, several attendees of the play— myself included— had tears streaming down their faces, proving that the hopes of those students involved in the play were not just fulfilled but surpassed. Emma Wilkinson ’16 described the relationship between Ned and Felix during the latter’s illness to be “heartbreaking”, while Hunter Green ’16 says he was most affected by the ever-growing pile of notecards.
“The strong gravity with which these notecards sat, over the entire course of the play, served as a constant reminder of the heaviness of the topic at hand,” he explained. “Not only were these notecards a fitting dedication, but also a moving illustration.” The Normal Heart was an extremely emotional experience for the entire cast and crew of the production as well. Goebel said, “I was honestly overwhelmed by all of this the first time I read the script. After seeing the play come to life, AIDS seems like a much more pressing and grim reality than before... I was incredibly sheltered growing up, but I think it’s fair to assume that many Hamilton students, like me, were not educated about AIDS-related or even gay-related topics.” Lanzotti also recalled, “The performance really takes a toll on you emotionally…I remember the first time I had an intensive rehearsal with Shea and [Catherine Luciani, who acted as Dr. Emma Brookner] to rehearse the scene where Felix is diagnosed, we must have stopped for five to 10 minutes between each run to settle down and sniffle our tears away.” For Crockett, the play was a significant eye-opener for just how local the issue of HIV/AIDS really is.
He, like several members of the audience, was tremendously moved by the notecards in the front of the stage, many of which were the names of people who lived in Herkimer and Oneida county. “As a student at Hamilton, it’s easy to feel separated from this issue because we live in such a bubble community. The Normal Heart forced me to see how close these victims really are,” he commented. “AIDS is not a dead issue. This is not a disease that discriminates between race, gender, or sexuality. Be smart, be safe, and get tested.”
By the end of the weekend, The Normal Heart raised just over $1000 for AIDS Community Resources. The organization will use the money to fund educational programs about safe sex and STD testing in Oneida and Herkimer Counties, and some of the funds raised will be allocated to provide Herkimer citizens and Utica refugees who are suffering from HIV/AIDS with health care. Lanzotti, in praise of the organization, said, “AIDS Community Resources, much like the Gay Men’s Health Crisis in the play, serves to educate and advocate for sufferers of the disease, and because their efforts are focused on the community, all of the money raised will stay here in Oneida and Herkimer and go towards helping those who are suffering here in our area.”
Lanzotti described the universality of The Normal Heart best in saying, “I had friends after the performance tell me that they connected with the difficulties sexual stereotypes towards gay men and others that told me the theme of Jewish oppression and frustration hit home for them.
Others still told me that Felix and Ned’s relationship felt familiar to them, not because of their sexuality, but rather because they understood Felix’s need to take care of someone and Ned’s need to be taken care of…In talking and debating and discussion, we truly can change things for the better and learn to understand each other as individual human beings.”