Friday night, I went to see The Normal Heart, a revival of a 1985 play about the early days of AIDS. (Starring Lee Pace! And Jim Parsons! More on them later.) It was quite shocking to us, for whom HIV/AIDS has become … well, not a commonplace, but a fairly straightforward chronic disease. I was on the infectious diseases service last January, and it was one of the most difficult months of my life, but we knew was wrong with these patients. We knew it down to the molecular level. We had drugs to extend their lives. We couldn’t cure them, not quite yet, but we could do something.
And so forgive my naivete, but it was a shock to step back nearly 30 years (the play is set 1981-1984) and see a time when that wasn’t possible. The Normal Heart is basically a rant against the people that twiddled their collective thumbs while young men died. It’s happened before, and it will happen again. It’s probably happening now, and I just don’t see it because of the New York bubble. The title comes from a poem by WH Auden, which you should all go read because it’s Auden, nuff said.
The didacticism and emotional manipulation did get a little heavy-handed at times, but there was enough nuance to just save it. The relationship between Ned and his conservative brother Ben, for instance — love, uncertainty, and depth. The City government and the NIH bear the brunt of Ned/Larry Kramer’s diatribe, probably fairly, but they do come across as straw men. I guess it’s easy to attack institutions, but I would have preferred to see the people within those institutions.
And fantastic acting all around. Lee Pace as a jerk (though hints of backstory suggest non-jerkish behavior)! And Jim Parsons — holy crap. He had very few lines, but he just commands the stage in this understated and powerful way. Everyone was amazing, but he was just on point.
I was thoroughly impressed and should probably read And the Band Played On at some point. Why don’t we talk about this stuff in medical school?