30 years ago, in the summer of 1987, I was cast in a new play called The Normal Heart. It had premiered a couple of years previously Off-Broadway and this was to be its Denver premiere. I was excited about the show, because it was one of the first plays to address the AIDS crisis, and as a young gay man, that was a topic near and dear to my heart. I had appeared in public service announcements for the Austin AIDS Project a couple years prior, and was newly transplanted to Colorado, so the chance to do something I love (perform) on a topic so immediate and of such import… Well, I jumped at the chance.
The experience, however, was a horrible one for me. When I showed up at the theater, it was apparent that it was not the first rehearsal. I was a replacement for someone. Not a huge deal, but I was unaware of that fact, so I was immediately on the defensive – feeling like sloppy seconds. I was playing the characters of Craig and Grady, as well as a silent orderly, and while I could pull off Grady’s flippant flamboyance, I couldn’t bring tears in the role of Craig, and the director threw up her hands trying to pull them out of me. In my defense, I was a young actor at that time – 24 – and my skills were mostly technical ones. I could make myself sound sad, but I couldn’t make myself feel sad. To make matters worse, she wanted me in tears as the lights rose on stage at the top of the play. So I was supposed to enter in the dark, sit down, and cry. I couldn’t do it. The director, after running out of patience with me, handed me off to her assistant director, who would later pass away from AIDS-related causes himself, tried everything in his power to get me there. No dice. It didn’t help that the actor playing my best friend in the scene absolutely loathed me. And I didn’t care for him, either. (We are now great friends, but that came later.)
I trudged through the production, spending more time on stage changing scenery than acting and beating myself for not being able to produce tears (nor, apparently, thrash well enough during my grand mal seizure). I decided that The Normal Heart was a lousy play – a polemic, really – and I’ve carried that with me ever since.
So when I was offered a chance to read for a role in a new production of the play, I demurred. “Oh…THAT show,” I thought, “no thank you.” The director persisted, and flattered more by his confidence in me than the project itself, I went to the theater and read for him. He cast me as Felix, the lover of the main character, Ned. Back in my first brush with this play, I was backstage during all of Felix’s scenes, so while I knew their outline, I wasn’t intimately familiar with their content. At 54, I thought, I’m a zillion years too old to play Felix. I mean, isn’t it going to be hard for the audience to care that some middle-aged guy dies (spoiler alert) from AIDS, when so many were struck down in their youth?
But reading through the journey that Felix takes in the play, I’ve realized that it’s a much better script than I have given it credit for. Yes, it’s still a polemic; Yes, I still have those memories of that unpleasant prior production, but there are many little details in Felix’s arc throughout the course of the play that show how methodically the playwright crafted the piece: In Act One, Felix teases Ned for eating sweets, in Act Two, he consoles himself with Twinkies after a bad reaction to his chemo treatments. In Act One, Felix tells Ned to call his brother, in Act Two, he goes to the brother himself to aid in repairing their relationship. Each time I went through the script, I saw more seeds planted by Kramer in the first half of the play that bore fruit in the latter half of the play. It’s more than a propaganda piece, it’s also a well-crafted melodrama.
This time, I have history behind me, and many losses, so when Felix must dissolve into tears, I find myself crying. It’s not due to any great acting ability on my part. The role – as Larry Kramer has written it – just touches me so deeply, I can’t help it. I’m enjoying rehearsals this time. They feel productive, I feel connected, I adore my scene partners, I trust them, and I feel confident that I can pull this one off. What a shame that so many lives had to be lost to infuse me with the feelings I dredge up today in the rehearsal hall. But what a gift it is to revisit this play, and pay homage to those I lost: This is for
Bill Beckham and
Kevin Sutton and
Merrill Key and
David St. Pierre and
Duane Black and
Doug Rosen and
John Arendt and
David Richards and
Larry Perez and
Joe York and
Diane “Dee Dee” Fields.
I miss you all. I wish you were still here, and that I could still not cry onstage.