Get a hanky: Saint Mark tackles ‘Normal Heart’
Larry Kramer’s landmark AIDS play “The Normal Heart” is as relevant now as when it debuted almost 30 years ago. The gay-friendly Saint Mark United Methodist Church stages a rare Atlanta version of the stirring drama opening Friday.
Kramer’s play about the rise of HIV/AIDS among gay men in New York City in the ‘80s is considered largely autobiographical. It first opened off-Broadway in 1985 starring late actor Brad Davis of “Midnight Express” fame. A remount came on Broadway last spring with some star power. It starred out actor Jim Parsons of “Big Bang Theory and won three Tony Awards – Best Revival of a Play, Best Featured Actor (John Benjamin Hickey) and Best Featured Actress (Ellen Barkin).
The local version (rehearsal photo above) is directed by Jim Baker, who saw the 2011 revival as well as the original production. A theater veteran with proven chops, he was first asked to direct a version of “Nunsense” at the church but didn’t feel that was up his alley. He had other ideas. Baker read an article about the rise of AIDS in young men aged 19 - 24 and African-American women and knew it was an important time to stage “Heart.”
Relief came when he and the church realized they could get the rights to the play. Since it’s being made into a film, the rights from here on out will be tied up for a few years. (Ryan Murphy of “Glee” fame is directing the film version. Parsons is reprising his role, and the rest of the cast includes out actor Matt Bomer, Mark Ruffalo and Julia Roberts.)
Baker is only aware of two local productions of the play but says he doesn’t think it has been staged in the ATL in a long time. To him, it’s a play that has no cobwebs.
“It is so relevant,” he says. “It’s such an important piece of theater. When I re-read it, I was amazed that in 30 years, there still is no cure, we are still struggling for civil rights and there isn’t enough money to find a cure.”
As a member of Saint Mark’s, Baker is happy about the church’s involvement and willingness to take on the uncensored material, which can be unflinching in its heartbreaking emotion and unapologetic in its grittiness.
“I am very proud of them,” Baker says of the church. “This is very powerful and has strong language and scenes. They are making a huge statement by doing it. They are not softening it at all. This is the perfect place to do the show. [Senior pastor] Beth Larocca-Pitts is a very progressive thinker.”
Proceeds from performances go to select local AIDS organizations.
Besides Baker, the production’s male cast is comprised entirely of gay men. The one female role is played by a straight woman.
“The Normal Heart” opens Friday at Saint Mark United Methodist Church. Buy tickets online.
Jim Farmer is an Atlanta-based freelance entertainment writer and public relations professional. He has been a theater and pop-culture critic for more than a dozen years and is the director of Atlanta’s annual Out On Film LGBT film festival.
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