A bittersweet revival for Larry Kramer's `Heart'

So much came true in the two decades since play outed the AIDS epidemic

April 27, 2004|By Stephen Dunn | Stephen Dunn,HARTFORD COURANT

NEW YORK - Before Ellen, Will & Grace and Queer Eye for the Straight Guy, before "Don't Ask, Don't Tell," domestic-partner benefits and gay marriage, before AIDS, there was Larry Kramer, movie producer, writer and self-described pain declaring that being gay was not about stereotypes, shame or sex.

But when the AIDS epidemic hit in the '80s, Kramer found his most important role in life, one that would transform him, help redefine the gay community and challenge those who tried to keep "the other" from their doors.

It's been nearly 20 years since Kramer's play The Normal Heart stunned, enraged and moved audiences with its in-your-face depiction of the early days of the AIDS crisis and its call for people to stop promiscuous sex in order to save lives. This month, a major revival of the 1985 work opened at the place where it began: off-Broadway's Public Theater, in a production by the Worth Street Theater Company.

"It's strange to go back [to the play]," says Kramer, 68, from his Manhattan apartment, which he shares with David Webster, 58, an architectural designer, and their Wheaton terrier, Tiger. "Many people today have no sense of what it was like when this plague began, when we were dropping like flies and you couldn't even get anyone to write about it."

In the play - set in New York between 1981 and '84 - the character of writer Ned Weeks, which Kramer modeled after himself, learns about the "gay cancer" killing his friends. His efforts to make others see the new disease as a potential plague is met with resistance or denial, not only by homophobic or fearful politicians and journalists, but by some in the gay community (many who are "closeted") who see any drastic action at curbing the disease as a retreat from a decade of sexual liberation and empowerment.

The play ends with the health crisis out of control - but also with a family reconciliation and a gay-marriage ceremony in a hospital room between Ned and his dying lover.

"Everything [Ned] was talking about was new and unproved then," says Kramer. "At the time, it was still theory - but it would turn out to be as bad as he was worried about. Now when you see the play, it's not about anger; it's about sadness - sadness because it did all come true."

Kramer's fury in the play is vociferously directed at former President Reagan and then-New York Mayor Ed Koch, who could have educated the public and started research earlier, which would have saved lives, he says. "I hate these two men more than anyone else, and I'm not a hater."

And, he adds, "If the media just gave the HIV virus the same attention it gave the Tylenol scare [of the period]."

For audiences that saw the original production, he says, AIDS was new, the character of Ned was obnoxious and what he was saying was horrifying in its Cassandra-like predictions. Audiences seeing the revival may feel something else. "Now, I don't think anyone in the New York audience will not have known someone who is infected or who has died of AIDS," Kramer says.

Acting up

After co-founding the Gay Men's Heath Crisis in 1981, an organization Kramer criticized for its political ineffectiveness in The Normal Heart, the writer/activist went on to found in 1987 ACT UP (AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power). The advocacy and protest organization connected with a younger generation of gays who did not want to accept the virus as a death sentence.

The Bridgeport, Conn., native also wrote several plays produced off-Broadway in the late '80s: Just Say No, an attack on the sexual hypocrisy of politicians, and the autobiographical The Destiny of Me, a Pulitzer Prize finalist. He also wrote Reports From the Holocaust: The Making of an AIDS Activist.

In 1998, Kramer founded the Treatment Data Project, which collects health and research data via the Internet. In 2001, he established and funded the Larry Kramer Initiative for Lesbian and Gay Studies at Yale, his alma mater. Two years ago, Kramer, who is HIV-positive, received a liver transplant. He is working on a new book (3,000 pages and counting) called The American People: A History.

In the meantime, Kramer's health has been "swell" since his liver transplant. "I am the miracle patient," he says of his 12-hour operation, performed at the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center.

"I've been very lucky that everything came along when I needed it," he says of his medical treatments. "When my liver caved in [in the early '90s], there was an experimental drug that helped, and then when it did so again in 2001, I was able to qualify for a liver transplant. It's all timing and luck - if you can just hold on somehow."

Changing lives

He becomes slightly embarrassed in discussions about what influence his actions and The Normal Heart have had on people. Former Marylander David Drake wrote a play, later a film, called The Night Larry Kramer Kissed Me, about how seeing the play changed his life. "More people know me because of that than of anything else," says Kramer.

Kramer says he has always followed the advice of play agent Peggy Ramsay, who said, "Don't believe anything good or bad - but especially good - that people say about you. The minute you start believing it, you cease to be a good writer."

He says he prefers to hear someone say, "I think I'm alive today because I listened to you."

It's something "people do say to me" he says. "You should always feel there is more to do and that you can never be satisfied with what you've accomplished.

The Hartford Courant is a Tribune Publishing newspaper.

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