Arena Stage’s recently opened production of Larry Kramer’s The Normal Heart is the area’s first production of the controversial play since 1995. It was in that year that Arlington’s Washington Shakespeare Company (now WSC Avant Bard) chose it as a way of opening up its then-new Clark Street Theatre complex with a controversial splash.
In bringing this play to Arena, artistic director Molly Smith notes she was “pleased that the timing worked out for Arena to launch the national tour of Larry Kramer’s The Normal Heart following its sold-out Broadway run” where it ultimately received three Tony Awards. “The Normal Heart presents a remarkably vivid, humorous and ultimately devastating depiction of the lives of the brave men on the front line of the epidemic, and will serve as a tremendous finale to our season,” she continues.
The backstory of this Arena production, however, is even more interesting. While Arena’s timing for presenting Normal Heart this season proved brilliant, it was also serendipitous. Arena had originally scheduled a brand new musical production based on the novel and film, “Like Water for Chocolate” for this timeslot. When that didn’t pan out, Arena was left instead with a big hole at the end of their 2011-2012 schedule.
Enter New York producer Daryl Roth. She was already riding an initially unexpected wave of success with Normal Heart in New York. “We staged a reading of the play one night to benefit New York’s AIDS-related charities. As a result of positive feedback we received, we eventually determined that we’d move to a real Broadway production of the play, which proved incredibly successful and moving,” she said. That full production was so successful, in fact, that Roth decided to take the show on the road, with its first stop in Washington.
Indeed, as one of America’s top regional theaters, Arena seemed the perfect place to begin the play’s road trip. At the same time, the production also proved the perfect solution to the venue’s need for another play to fill its early summer calendar. Better yet, not only would this production become the long-awaited premiere of the play in the District itself, its run also happens to coincide with the 19th International AIDS Conference in Washington. Advance planning couldn’t have produced a better result, proving that sometimes complications really do work out for the best.
Roth is certainly excited about the play’s DC production, which recently opened its 8-week run at Arena. “I’ve collaborated with Molly Smith and have admired her work, so it’s been wonderful to collaborate with her and do this production at Arena Stage,” she says. The two worked together on last season’s production of a new play at Arena based on John Grisham’s novel “A Time to Kill.”
“It’s also important that [Normal Heart] is being staged in DC at this particular time,” Roth continues, “because we want it to be a cultural contribution to the AIDS conference. People learn a lot from theater, so this is a very nice addition to the entire agenda,” she says.
Additionally, “Larry Kramer also grew up in the DC area,” notes Roth, “so this production is also meaningful on a local level as well.”
Originally penned in the early 1980s, Kramer’s play had its premiere performances in New York way back in 1985. It’s an intense, deeply personal chronicling of the AIDS epidemic’s early days.
As a longtime rabble-rousing author and gay activist, Kramer—the driving force behind the in-your-face ACT UP movement—has been a controversial figure in the gay community seemingly forever. Normal Heart charts his own dramatic journey through those early, terrifying days of the AIDS epidemic in New York City when he tried to focus his city and the nation on an insidious plague that stalked the gay community with—at least initially—no known organic cause or origin.
Arena’s current production, directed by its original New York director George C. Wolfe with the assistance of Arena’s re-staging director, Leah C. Gardiner, packs the same emotional response as it did decades ago when little was known about AIDS save its rapid onset and invariably fatal conclusion.
The current production has the additional virtue of serving as a history lesson for younger audiences, many of whom regard the science of AIDS as settled and the disease effectively cured, which it is not. Roth noted that the playwright wanted nothing changed in his script in this new production for precisely that reason.
The Arena’s production of The Normal Heart features several of the original New York cast members, although roles have been shuffled around a bit. For example, Patrick Breen, who plays lead character Ned Weeks in the current production, “played city government functionary Mickey Marcus on Broadway,” says Roth.
Michael Berresse picks up the role of Mickey in the Arena production. He recalls that he had auditioned for several projects that were directed by Normal Heart director George C. Wolfe, “but they didn’t work out. This one, though, was amazing. It’s an incredible play,” he says, noting that he was especially inspired when going in for his audition for the current production. The result: “I had an offer a half an hour after leaving the audition,” says Berresse.
In Normal Heart, Mickey Marcus is a mid-level career bureaucrat. He’s been careful to stay in the closet and behave himself lest he risk his career and seniority for real or perceived mistakes that catch the unwelcome attention of his superiors. In a way, Mickey is the character most likely to resonate with Washington theatergoers who might have had similar experiences when working for local governments or for the Feds.
As Mickey—increasingly fearing the insidious, always-fatal illness that seemed almost deliberately targeted at New York’s gay community—becomes involved in Weeks’ awareness campaign, he reluctantly climbs out of his protective cocoon and starts paying the price with his superiors.
“Mickey has this complete and total meltdown in the second act,” says Berresse. “His helplessness turns into rage which immediately turns into a total breakdown,” he says. Like other gay men, Mickey’s been hiding his sexuality at the workplace while indulging in gay liberation in his life. “But now this sexual liberation has come back to haunt him,” says Berresse. “Now he’s struggling to find the validity in everything he’s worked for. But he feels powerless to do anything at all.”
Berresse loosened up for the role and felt free to really let go in his performance. “George encouraged us to give into our feelings in our roles,” he says. “And for the part of Mickey, this was really the perfect advice.”
“Mickey is such a bundle of complications,” he says. “My performance has adjusted in my brain. I wanted to make sure Mickey was relatable to the audience, had a sense of humor, and had a believable physicality.”
“It’s a part with a lot of humor in it, too,” he says, noting, “it’s important for all of us to find the amount of humor that’s in this play. Yes, what’s going on is terrifying, and it’s hard to let that go, that sense of fear and personal dread, the ignorance surrounding this disease. But humor can at least help us get through some of it.”
Like Roth, Berresse is hoping that the play will help younger theatergoers understand more about the origins and the science of AIDS and AIDS research. “Younger people are not aware of what went down in that era,” he says, noting that DC still has “one of the highest if not the highest infection rates in the country.”
Unlike the 1980s, AIDS is now manageable “if you have access and funds,” notes Berresse. But for this play to both entertain but get its message across, its characters “must be interesting and likeable enough for the audience to get engaged with them. Then, when the s— hits the fan, it’s too late. You care about these characters, and feel a tremendous sense of loss and responsibility.”
In a real-world case in point, Berresse recalls a recent trip to a DC gym while Normal Heart was in rehearsal. “I ran into a couple of middle aged gay guys at the gym. They hadn’t seen me there before and asked me if I was new,” he says. “I told them, ‘I’m working at Arena Stage in The Normal Heart.’ One of the two had telltale signs of AIDS, although he seemed healthy with his symptoms under control. Both of them suddenly turned very cold and said, ‘we don’t need to see that again.’ Maybe they don’t want to confront the emotions or the losses again,” he says.
Berresse actually believes that, for all its wild reputation, Normal Heart is “really a story of hope and of love. Its core message is that hiding behind fear and turning a blind eye to what’s going on is the single most dangerous thing you can do,” he says. “It’s hard for all of us to look fear in the face and take responsibility for our actions, and for taking actions themselves.”
Like Berresse, Daryl Roth is thrilled with having The Normal Heart performed at last in the Nation’s capital. “It’s a political story, a love story,” she says. “It’s still incredibly timely, and its issues—marriage, quality healthcare, freedom to love whom you choose—are still very prominently on the national agenda. It’s just a wonderful time for this play to be seen.”