'The Normal Heart' continues to beat strong on Broadway

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The only sounds heard leaving "The Normal Heart" were nose blowing and an occasional cry.

The incredible sadness of watching the revival of the play about the outbreak of AIDS and the epidemic that followed should leave us crying.

It should leave us crying for 35 million reasons. Yes, an estimated 35 million people have died from AIDS since 1983.

It should leave us crying because there is no cure.

And it should leave us crying because this is the plague of our time. Those of us old enough to remember when the epidemic was new sit in the theater, trying to not cry from the beginning.

It is impossible.

It is impossible to not remember friends, and for others, lovers, who were strong, handsome young men and turned into skeletons, gasping for air. They died so young and the numbers were so overwhelming.

No one knew where to turn; any crazy potential cure was worth trying, and going to funerals replaced going to discos.

This is the story of what happened when the epidemic started.

It's the autobiographical story of the playwright Larry Kramer. A writer and activist, Kramer not only made us notice, he made us think and continues to nettle everyone into action. This personalizes the AIDS epidemic.

It's July 1981 when 41 are known dead of this mysterious disease.

The play opens in a doctor's office. Dr. Emma Brookner ( Ellen Barkin) is a no-nonsense woman in a wheelchair, the result of childhood polio, which she contracted three months before the polio vaccine was invented. She is blunt, forceful and knows she is at the very beginning of an epidemic of mind-boggling consequences.

Immediately, a man is diagnosed.

"I am going to die a young man," he says.

He is not being a drama queen.

The doctor cannot diagnose what she's seeing, but says, "What I know is this disease is the most insidious we have ever seen."

She sends her reports to the Centers for Disease Control, which ignores them.

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The  play follows the loud, brilliant, obnoxious, belligerent Ned Weeks ( Joe Mantello, who earns a Tony nod for this performance). Ned has a brother, Ben ( Mark Harelik), a successful lawyer, and he finally has a partner -- after decades of just taking casual lovers. His lover, Felix Turner ( John Benjamin Hickey), is a New York Times lifestyle reporter.

Ned talks his friends -- and anyone else who crosses his path -- into political action.  Ned knows suffering silently is not working. He is particularly incensed with then-Mayor Ed Koch and then-President Ronald Reagan, who refuse to publicly deal with AIDS.

The play is relentlessly sad, and comic relief comes from Jim Parsons ("The Big Bang Theory"), who plays Tommy Boatwright. "I am a hospital administrator and Southern bitch," he says.

He's also a soothing voice who calms the men's frayed nerves as Ned and friends begin the Gay's Men Health Crisis, the nation's oldest AIDS service organization.

To understand what a huge deal this was, realize that one of the co-founders, Bruce ( Lee Pace), did not want the word gay used in the return address on the group's envelopes.

He was a closeted banker who had three partners die from AIDS. The last one lost his mind, then control of his body, on a plane -- a plane that Bruce and his partner were taking so the man could die at home, yet which one pilot refused to even fly. When the man died, he was regarded as such a leper that no one would touch the body and his remains were finally dumped into a garbage bag to be cremated.

This is how AIDS was.

As the play continues, a most effective device is used -- the names of the dead are projected onto the walls. Each time the names are shown, the list is longer.

There is no theater large enough to hold these names now.

"The Normal Heart" shows that there was plenty of internecine fighting among the group. Ned is not easy to get along with, yet his intentions are pure.

And he's not the only one to freak out. How can anyone stay calm when everyone around him is dying of some mysterious ailment, with the only link being that they are gay men? 

Those early days of talking about a "gay cancer" and screaming so someone would write a story, some money would be allocated for research, were a lifetime ago, or rather 35 million lifetimes ago.

Yes, from the opening scenes of "The Normal Heart," we know what happens.

And that makes it even more tragic. We know what happens and this is not a hideous chapter of history we can tell younger people about.  It is a part of history that's ongoing, and one that should leave us crying with sorrow for those who have died and anger for what still must be done.
Photo/Video credit: Joan Marcus