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Thirty Years After… The Normal Heart has it’s Cape Cod premiere

July 3, 2013 7:00 am0 commentsViews: 276
Jane Macdonald and Joe MacDougall in The Normal Heart

Jane Macdonald and Joe MacDougall in The Normal Heart

by Steve Desroches

“It was the early ‘80s, ‘82 maybe, that I was asked, as Town Nurse, to visit a sick young man living alone in town. When I went to see him, I discovered he had driven from Colorado to Massachusetts General Hospital and then he had been referred out here. When I called the social worker who had referred him to ask why she would send a dying man to Provincetown she said ‘because the gay community there will take care of him.’” – Alice Foley as quoted in Starry, Starry Night: Provincetown’s Response to the AIDS Epidemic.

In the first 15 years of the AIDS epidemic 10 percent of Provincetown’s permanent population died. That staggering number doesn’t include summer residents, seasonal business owners, and visiting entertainers who also died. AIDS hit Provincetown like a sledgehammer and the grief from those early days is still palpable in the voices of those that were here at the time.  Provincetown’s response to the AIDS epidemic was in short incredible. What is now the AIDS Support Group of Cape Cod was founded in Provincetown in 1983, at a time when fear and ignorance seemed the norm around the country. It’s been 31 years since the first case of AIDS was identified in Provincetown and much has changed.

To a large degree talking about AIDS has lessened since the 80s and 90s, but an upcoming, highly anticipated production of Larry Kramer’s landmark work The Normal Heart, the Tony-Award-winning play’s Cape Cod premiere at the Provincetown Theater, is stirring a complex range of emotions from the community, but all honoring the importance of this play and the significance of it being staged here in Provincetown.

“So many people have come up to me and said, ‘I’m so glad you’re doing this finally,’” says director Patrick Falco. “It needs to be done here.”

The Normal Heart is set in New York City between 1981 and 1984 as the HIV/AIDS crisis grows. The story is told through the experiences of Ned Weeks, a gay Jewish man and the founder of an HIV advocacy group. Weeks’ in-your-face activism is at odds with his closeted lover and friend’s, though they share the same goal. From the beginning the play was seen as not just politically important, but as a great piece of dramatic writing and a revelatory work of theatrical autobiography. The Normal Heart finally made its way to Broadway in 2011, winning three Tony Awards, including Best Revival of a Play.

The Provincetown Theater production stars Joe MacDougall, Aaron Tone, Jane Macdonald, Spencer Keasey, Brian Dunham, Michael Burke, Bragan Thomas, Austin Boykin, Fred Biddle, and Robert Dicomandrea. Several cast members assembled with Falco on a muggy, foggy afternoon to discuss the production, what it means for Provincetown and what it means to them, a group of people who in a variety of ways have all been touched by HIV and AIDS. Especially this week, when the Supreme Court struck down the core of the so-called Defense of Marriage Act and California’s Proposition 8, Kramer’s work, written and first performed at the Public Theater in New York in 1985, is made all the more relevant and shines a light on how The Normal Heart is a modern classic.

“Gay history is not passed down through the family; it’s passed down through a culture,” says Tone. “This is a seminal part of gay history. Much of the generation that would have taught it is gone.”

“I saw it three times in 2011,” says Boykin. “The first time I saw it, it was the most visceral reaction I’ve ever had to a piece of theater. It’s the most incredible thing I’ve ever seen in my life.”

For many gay men HIV and AIDS can be a dark cloud overshadowing sex and intimacy. But as attitudes change and a new generation comes of age, what happened in the past risks being forgotten and progress made can be erased This is why powerful theater like The Normal Heart is so important, say Falco and the cast.  People with AIDS used to come to Provincetown to die. And while now medical advancements enable people with HIV and AIDS to live healthier and longer lives, the virus remains serious and messages of prevention are still important. The level of awareness and information amongst young people is of concern, as HIV rates are on the rise.

“Oh God yes, “ says Boykin, the youngest member of the cast, as to whether or not young gay men are less aware of HIV.

“They can’t be that clueless,” says Tone.

“It’s like it didn’t exist to some,” says MacDougall.

“The social implications of living positive have changed,” says Keasey.

The cast members all acknowledge that some in town have remarked that the production may be too emotional for them to see, that it would bring up painful memories.

“People have said to me point blank that they lived it and they don’t want to see it,” says MacDougal.

“Some think it’s not a good choice for ‘summer theater’,” says Falco. “So AIDS is a seasonal disease?”

But there is a definitive air of empowerment expressed by the cast and Falco, that this play is an example that those with HIV or AIDS, as well as gay men and lesbians, now have a much larger voice thanks to the work of people like Kramer and the many people, straight and gay, men and women, in Provincetown who organized to fight the epidemic and the fear around it.

While Kramer himself is busy assisting with the HBO production of the film version of The Normal Heart, and won’t be in attendance, he’s aware and thrilled about the Provincetown production and has spoken via phone to several cast members.

“I’m just so thankful and honored to do it in this community,” says Falco.  “The support from the community has been incredible. It’s an honor.”

Larry Kramer’s The Normal Heart runs at the Provincetown Theater, 238 Bradford St., Friday, July 5 through Sunday, July 21 at 7:30 p.m. Thursdays through Sundays. Tickets ($30 adults / $25 seniors) are available at the box office or online at www.provincetowntheater.org. For more information call 508.487.7487.