A Tony Award-winning play receiving its regional premiere this weekend offers a potent reminder of the horrors of the ‘80s AIDS epidemic.
Larry Kramer’s “The Normal Heart” will be presented by Outre Theatre Company, Sept. 22 through Oct. 9 at Showtime Performing Arts Theatre in Boca Raton.
While Kramer’s play is largely autobiographical, documenting the fear that gripped the gay community during the height of the epidemic and the rise of activist groups such as ACT UP, director Doug Wetzel sees it as more than a period piece.
“I still have memories of the first time I met someone with full-blown AIDS,” Wetzel admitted. “At its core, the play is a human interest story that still has a lot of relevance to our community.”
While the advent of retroviral drugs brought the epidemic under control more than 20 years ago, the numbers of new infections are rising, especially among young people who might not remember the darkest days.
“People are feeling more at ease because of PrEP and medication. Almost 50 percent of all new infections are people who are younger than 34. They’re not necessarily treating HIV and AIDS the way we did in the ‘80s as something that was completely unknown and scary. It came out of the blue,” Wetzel, 54, explained.
Playwright Kramer was an outspoken activist who founded ACT UP. In his play, activist Ned Weeks struggles to mobilize an organization to raise awareness about the mysterious disease that is killing gay men in New York City. He enlists Dr. Emma Brookner, a physician and polio survivor bound to a wheelchair, to help him promote abstinence until the cause is determined. He also calls on his lawyer brother, Ben, to help form and fund his organization.
Through the course of the play, they must confront homophobia and political inertia, all while watching their friends succumb to the disease. During the Broadway run, Kramer passed out leaflets before the performances commemorating the real people who inspired his characters.
To prepare his cast, many of whom are in their 20s and early 30s, Wetzel took them to the World AIDS Museum in Wilton Manors.
“They were a little younger than I wanted them to be. It was great to have the museum educate them on the events and the chronology of how it all unfolded. The museum is amazing and their help was invaluable,” he said, adding a portion of proceeds from the Sept. 30 performance will be donated to the museum.
“I’m so excited about the talent, the actors. South Florida has some very good actors and they are really paying attention to the motivations to their roles,” he said.
In addition to the 2011 Broadway production, “The Normal Heart” was also adapted into a critically acclaimed film broadcast on HBO three years later.
Wetzel is not concerned that audiences already “know” the story.
“I can’t say that’s affected how I’m interpreting it on stage,” he said. “In fact, theatergoers generally enjoy going to see something that they know, which is exactly what this play is. It’s a powerful story and they will come to see it.”
Wetzel noted that Outre’s artistic director Skye Whitcomb and the entire team were very supportive of the decision to produce “The Normal Heart.”
“It’s not a typical play that everyone loves like a comedy, but it plays to what Outre likes to do: It gets people thinking,” he concluded.
Outre Theatre Company presents Larry Kramer’s “The Normal Heart,” Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays at 8 p.m. and Sundays at 2 p.m., Sept. 22 through Oct. 9 at Showtime Performing Arts Theatre, 503 SE Mizner Blvd. in Boca Raton. Tickets are $40 at OutreTheatreCompany.com.