There's one woman and a bunch of dying guys. That's the structure of The Normal Heart. The woman is a doctor—the "doctor of death," they call her—and the guys are her patients. The guys who don't die before our eyes are going to die soon, and they know it, and it shows. These are the earliest days of AIDS; the play starts in 1981. One of the minor characters walks across the stage with Kaposi's sarcoma on his face, and I realized, watching him, that I'd never been in a room with someone with Kaposi's sarcoma, the purple lesions that many sick guys got. At intermission, I asked my companion, a gay engineer in his 30s, if he'd ever seen Kaposi's sarcoma before, because I wanted his opinion on the makeup design. He thought I was asking about a band. That's how little conversation there is among gay guys born after 1980 about our shared history.
Lots of gay movies touch on AIDS slightly, but a little knowledge, as someone smart once said, is dangerous. Young gay guys are pretty eye-roll-y and know-it-all-ish about everything. And no young gay guy goes up to an older gay guy at a party and goes, "So tell me about AIDS." And what would he tell, anyway? The whole history of horrors in his head? That is a worthwhile conversation, but if you're not an aggressive conversationalist, it's never going to happen. In walks theater.
Thirty years after Larry Kramer wrote it, The Normal Heart is still full of infuriating detail about, say, how difficult it was to get the New York Times to write about AIDS, even though New York was the disease's epicenter. (Closet cases at the New York Times didn't want to out themselves by caring too much about it.) To say nothing of how difficult it was to get research funding. The mayor of New York City was also a closet case—or a "bachelor," as Dr. Emma Brookner puts it, disgustedly, in air quotes. Dr. Brookner is played by Amy Thone, a brilliant Seattle actor who's been praised to the skies in The Stranger before. (She has a Stranger Genius Award.) I hate to heap more attention on Thone at the expense of the other actors, but so be it: She's un-look-away-from-able. Her unimpressed is very impressive. She's so convincing, it feels like an actual pissed-off doctor from 1981 has been airlifted into the production, and the rigmarole of getting her here was so expensive, they couldn't afford a set. (Well, it's very sparse, but director Sheila Daniels does one or two wonderful things with it.) All the other actors are of normal talents. There was no bar at intermission, even though a bar was desperately needed. A third of the audience was in tears by the end.