ACT UP is acting up again.
Protesters from the AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power got naked in the offices of House Speaker John Perma-Tan Boehner on Tues., Nov. 27 to warn against potential cuts to AIDS funding. Their action, coming just a few days before the Dec. 1 World AIDS Day observances, brought back memories of a time more than 25 years ago when ACT UP activists were the outliers, crying out in a wilderness of indifference and denial — a time when the nation’s president could hardly bear to mention the word AIDS, the gay community itself was conflicted about how to deal with the still-mysterious disease, and an AIDS diagnosis was tantamount to a death sentence.
That wasn’t the first time this month that I was reminded of the horrors of that era. On Nov. 19, the Suncoast AIDS Theatre Project presented a staged reading of The Normal Heart, Larry Kramer’s incendiary semi-autobiographical play about the early days of the AIDS crisis. Reactions to the play were mixed when it was first produced in 1985, partly reflecting mixed feelings about its author. Like his alter ego in the play, Ned Weeks, Kramer was (and still is) an abrasive figure who rallied support for the fight against AIDS while alienating many of his supporters. A co-founder of NYC’s first major AIDS service organization, Gay Men’s Health Crisis, Kramer left in disgust at its lack of political will and went on to found ACT UP.
But the passage of time has provided a fresh perspective on The Normal Heart. That, and a Tony-winning 2011 revival, which prompted the New York Times’ Ben Brantley to say that Kramer wrote “a far better play than you might have thought.”
I didn’t see that production. But I can’t imagine it was any more powerful than SATP’s.
Let me tell you a little about the Suncoast AIDS Theatre Project. Its artistic director, Garry Breul, is a well-known stage manager-about-town. He doesn’t get paid for running SATP. Neither do the actors he recruits, except for gas money sometimes, and occasional sandwiches. But the ebullient Breul has kept the project alive for 10 years now, presenting over 35 staged play readings and concerts, raising in the last year alone approximately $3,000 apiece for AIDS service organizations in Pinellas and Sarasota.
But SATP is not just about good deeds. It’s about good theater. Very good theater. The staged reading of Normal Heart — with script in hand, on a borrowed set (American Stage’s Doll’s House) — was up there with the best theater I’ve seen this year. Or any year.
Give major credit to the cast, many of them regulars at St. Pete’s freeFall Theatre Company: Eric Davis (freeFall’s artistic director) as Ned, plus Chris Crawford, Jim Sorensen, Roxanne Fay, Larry Alexander, John Lombardi, Joel Gennari, Matthew McGee, Christopher Swan and Jeff Ray. All were extraordinary. Even more extraordinary: They rehearsed just twice, for a few hours at a time, on the evening and the afternoon before the performance, for a play that calls for anguished tirades, quiet romantic moments, sardonic one-liners, brutal confrontations, and a wrenchingly emotional death scene. And in this production the actors couldn’t go backstage after their scenes and just chill. They had to return to a row of upstage chairs and attempt to sit there and look stoic. Sometimes they couldn’t remain stoic; it was lucky they were sitting next to each other because it made it easier for them to pass the Kleenex box.
Jim Sorensen told me this week that after the reading was over the actors just looked at each other backstage and said, “Holy shit!” He modestly added that the emotional intensity they were able to reach during the reading had something to do with the fact that the script was still new to them; the real trick would be to recapture that freshness night after night in a run that lasts weeks or months.
Along those lines, Garry Breul tells me there’s been talk of re-mounting the play as a fully staged production. I hope they do — but I also know that the Nov. 19 performance, for me, will remain definitive.
SATP is firing on all cylinders this season. Their Wizard of Oz parody is already as legendary as this Normal Heart deserves to be. And on Saturday, World AIDS Day, they’re offering another one-night-only presentation, this time of a play by the late Jeff Norton about the incandescent pop artist Keith Haring.
Haring was one of the millions of casualties of the AIDS epidemic. Treatment may have improved, but the epidemic is far from over. According to the most recent statistics from the Foundation for AIDS Research, more than 34 million people worldwide now live with HIV/AIDS, and an estimated 2.5 million were newly infected with HIV in 2011.
That should be more than enough reason to support the organizations in the Bay area that are helping people affected by the epidemic.
But if you just like good theater, SATP gives you that, too.
Note: I’m currently a judge for the Jeff Norton Awards, which recognize work by area theaters that pay their actors and whose productions run for 12 performances or have a potential audience of 2,500. Judges can’t talk about their opinions until the awards in 2013, so I’m glad I could talk about The Normal Heart, which, as I said, ran for one night only and didn’t pay its actors. And its audience — 89 — didn’t quite meet the 2,500 threshold.