This past weekend I took my Conservative (yet theatre loving) father to see the critically acclaimed Studio 180 Production of The Normal Heart. I was more than a little hesitant because while he loves theatre, my father has never really opened up to any 'gay rights' issues - in fact he's always questioned my unabashed support of gay marriage, Pride and HIV/AIDS education. That said, it is my firm belief that this is the type of show that can trascend pre-existing stereotypes and reach people on a deeper and more meaningful level because it speaks to a bigger issue that everyone (gay or straight) can appreciate - love.
The show tells the story of Ned Weekes, an activist in the Early Stages of the HIV/AIDS crisis in New York City. It's equally about Ned's struggle to speak out against injustices in the initial public response to the outbreak as it is an examination of his life and personal motivations - most notably his quest to find and accept love.
To say the subject matter is difficult is a gross understatement as the show deals with a time in American history that many of us are either ignorant to or choose to ignore because it was so ugly. Governments and health organizations largely ignored the HIV/AIDS epidemic, waiting far too long to dedicate the kind of resources necessary to stop it from spreading so rapidly within the gay community. There's a line in the show that says "there's not a good thing to be said about anybody's behaviour in this whole mess" and that couldn't ring more true. When one examines the response to similar epidemics throughout the last century it is heartbreaking to see just how little attention was given to HIV/AIDS, more than likely because in the Early Stages of the epidemic it was believe to only affect gay men.
This examination of the lack of action due to the belief that the disease only affected gay men is where The Normal Heart stands out as a suberb and brave piece of theatre. We live in a world where gay individuals are still often treated like second class citizens, not afforded the same rights as their straight counterparts. The most recent US election was a prime example of this, with Republican candidate Mitt Romney unapogetically stating that he would reverse many of the recent decisions giving gay men and women more rights (such as the right to marry).
Discrimination for any reason should never be tolerated, but we know that it happens all over the world and often for the most absurd reasons. That being said, to actively choose inaction in the face of an epidemic solely because it was afflicting a group of people that some felt needed to remain marginalized is perhaps one of the greatest atrocities of all. To think of the lives that could have been saved with more swift and decisive action, and the people who could have received better end of life care if stigmas had been addressed, is heartbreaking.
The performances in The Normal Heart are so powerful that the pain these characters face is palpable and shared with members of the audience. People of all ages, gay and straight, can regularly be seen tearing up as the characters begin to break under the pressure of the horrifying situation they are facing. At the core of the plot however, is a gorgeous love story between two men. It isn't gawdy or obtrusive or in your face, but rather simple, beautiful and painful given the subject matter of the play. That being said, where The Normal Heart truly shines is that it doesn't portray the love story as a "gay love story", but rather a love story that anyone can relate to.
It was this love story that I hoped would get through to my father and overcome his squeamish tendencies when it comes to gay relationships. When my mother was dying of cancer, I watched my father go through much of the same difficulties and emotions that the characters in this show go through. And sitting beside him at The Normal Heart, I watched his heart melt as he realized that the relationship he was watching unfold on stage was at its core, no different than any other.
They say that one of the greatest crimes we can impose upon younger generations is not to educate them on the past for they will be doomed to repeat it. I also believe we need to educate them on the importance of compassion towards people different than themselves, and The Normal Heart succeeds on both these points. Perhaps if more people saw this show, gay versus straight would cease to be an issue at all and we could all finally exist as one.
If nothing else, it will teach our youth the importance of valuing ALL life, and show them first hand the devastating consequences of bigotry. We've come a long way but we aren't there yet, and those of us who have a strong voice need to continue to stand up and assert it for those not strong enough to speak for themselves. And if you aren't ready to speak out, do yourself a favour and buy a ticket to The Normal Heart. It may just change your mind.