Fifteen Years Ago

Today marks the anniversary of the bombing of the federal building in Oklahoma City. The day after that horror, as the theater critic for the Pasadena Weekly I couldn’t help but draw parallels and distinctions between such a fresh hell and the subject matter of the play I covered, whose review, follows:

Taking ‘Heart’
Political drama points finger at causes of AIDS epidemic
By William Campbell

The Whitefire Theater’s production of Larry Kramer’s “The Normal Heart” opened April 20 in Sherman Oaks, one day after the tragic and horrible bombing of the federal building in Oklahoma City, Okla.

“So?” you ask.

Well, directly, there’s no connection, but at the close of the show that evening, it was all too easy to draw similarities between the play’s subject matter — the first, desperate years of the AIDS crisis and this country’s slow response in dealing with it — and the terrible event that had occurred in America’s heartland.

Both have had devestating effect; destroying lives and families, causing us to question our safety and security, and dragging into the light how vulnerable and fragile we are as both a nation and as individuals.

But in watching the events of the bombing unfold, amazed at the organization and mobilization of resources, appreciative of the forces being utilized to apprehend those responsible, and proud of the countrywide — if not global — outpouring of support for the citizens of Oklahoma City, the similarities abruptly end.

Because in the opening years of the AIDS crisis, well-depicted in Kramer’s play, there was no massive mobilization of resources. The only forces marshalled were those on the grass-roots level with little or no support from the government. And as to an outpouring? “Trickle-down” took on a whole new meaning in the early-to-mid 1980s.

Just imagine it if an organized, concerted effort — comparable to that witnessed in Oklahoma — had been concentrated against this nightmare disease early-on. Dream of what such a dedication of energy might have acomplished, what advances might have been made, what pain could have been eased, and what lives might have been prolonged or even saved. Because in looking back at the AIDS epidemic, a past of might-have-beens and could-have-dones, dreaming of what never happened is all that’s left — that and a lot of pain and death.

But dreaming of the non-existent past is not what “The Normal Heart” is about at all. Instead, Kramer’s semi-autobiographical drama is about hope and acceptance, triumph over fear and death, and the search for the face of truth in a world that has turned its back.

Directed by Ekta Monica Lobo and starring an ensemble cast that features Robert Bakkemo as outspoken, opinionated, brash and head-strong Ned Weeks, “The Normal Heart” takes place in New York City between 1981 and 1984, and chronicles Weeks’ struggle to create an effective organization to lead the fight against AIDS.

The production itself has a workshop feel to it, with its bare-bones sets and close-to-interminable gaps between the numerous scene and set changes, but it is not without its passionate moments.