The Normal Heart

A Full Length Play by Larry Kramer

The Normal Heart
Too many gay men were lost in the AIDS epidemic of the 1980s. Joe Raedle

Larry Kramer wrote The Normal Heart, a semi-autobiographical award-winning play based on his experiences as a gay man during the beginning of the HIV/AIDS epidemic in New York. The protagonist, Ned Weeks, is Kramer’s alter ego — an outspoken and acerbic personality who was the voice of reason so many people both inside and outside the gay community refused to listen to or follow. Kramer himself originated the Gay Men’s Health Crisis which was one of the first groups founded to help victims of AIDS and spread awareness of the disease.

Kramer was later forced out of the group he helped to found due to the board of directors feeling he was over confrontational and hostile.

In the beginning of the 1980s, the gay population in America was experiencing a sexual revolution. Especially in New York City, gay men and women finally felt free enough to come “out of the closet” and express pride in who they were and the lives they wished to lead.

This sexual revolution coincided with the outbreak of HIV/AIDS and the only prevention advocated by medical personnel at that time was abstinence. This solution was unacceptable to a population of oppressed people who had finally found freedom through sexual expression.

Kramer, and his alter ego Ned Weeks, did his best to talk to his friends, send out information, and get government assistance to convince the gay community of the real and present danger of the as yet unnamed plague that was being transmitted sexually.

Kramer was met with resistance and anger from every side and it would take over four years before any of his efforts found success.

Plot Synopsis

The Normal Heart spans a period of three years from 1981-1984 and chronicles the beginning of the HIV/AIDS epidemic in New York City from the perspective of protagonist, Ned Weeks.

Ned is not an easy man to love or befriend. He challenges everyone’s viewpoints and is willing to speak, and speak loudly, about unpopular issues. The play opens at a doctor’s office where four gay men wait to be seen by Dr. Emma Brookner. She is one of the few doctors willing to see and attempt to treat patients who come to her with the varied and bizarre symptoms with which AIDS first presents. By the end of the first scene, two of the four men are diagnosed positive for the disease. The other two men are worried about possibly being carriers of the disease. (This bears repeating: It is important to note that the disease is so new it doesn’t have a name yet.)

Ned and a few others found a group to help spread awareness of this new and deadly disease. Ned butts heads with the board of directors frequently because the board wishes to focus on helping those already infected and in trouble while Ned wants to push ideas that may prevent the spread of the disease — namely, abstinence. Ned’s ideas are distinctly unpopular and his personality renders him incapable of winning anyone to his side. Even his partner, Felix, a writer for the New York Times is reluctant to write anything having to do with this supposed homosexual disease that only seems to affect gays and junkies.

Ned and his group attempt to meet with the governor of New York several times with no success. In the meantime, the number of people diagnosed and deceased from the disease begins to rise exponentially. Ned wonders if any help is ever going to come from the government and strikes out on his own to go on radio and TV to spread awareness. His actions eventually lead the group he created to force him out. The board of directors does not support his insistence on having the word “Gay” on the letterhead or return address on mailings. They do not want him doing any interviews (since he wasn’t voted president) and they do not want Ned as the main voice speaking out for the gay community. He is forced out and goes home to help his partner, Felix, now in the final stages of the disease.

Production Details

Setting: New York City

The stage is meant to be “white washed” with statistics about the beginning of the HIV/AIDS epidemic written in plain black lettering for the audience to read. Notes about what statistics were used in the original production can be found in the script published by the New American Library.

Time: 1981-1984

Cast Size: This play can accommodate 14 actors.

Male Characters: 13

Female Characters: 1

Roles

Ned Weeks is difficult to get along with and love. His ideas are ahead of his time.

Dr. Emma Brookner is one of the first doctors to treat the new and nameless disease infecting the gay community. She is under-appreciated in her field and her advice and prevention ideas are unpopular.

The character of Dr. Emma Brookner is confined to a wheelchair due to a childhood bout of polio. This wheelchair, along with her illness, is a subject of discussion in the dialogue of the play and the actress playing her must remain seated in the wheelchair the entire production. The character of Dr. Emma Brookner is based on the real-life doctor Dr. Linda Laubenstein who was one of the first doctors to treat patients with HIV/AIDS.

Bruce Niles is the handsome president of the support group Ned helped found. He is unwilling to come out of the closet at work and refuses to do any interview that might out him as a gay man. He is terrified he may be a carrier of the disease as so many of his partners have been infected and died.

Felix Turner is Ned’s partner. He is a writer for the fashion and food sections of the New York Times but is still reluctant to write anything to publicize the disease even after he is infected.

Ben Weeks is Ned’s brother. Ben swears he supports Ned’s lifestyle, but his actions often betray an underlying uneasiness with his brother’s homosexuality.

Smaller Roles

David

Tommy Boatwright

Craig Donner

Mickey Marcus

Hiram Keebler

Grady

Examining Doctor

Orderly

Orderly

Content Issues: Language, sex, death, graphic details about the end stages of AIDS

Resources

Samuel French holds the production rights for The Normal Heart.

In 2014, HBO released a movie by the same name.