“Most can’t imagine a world where there’s this rapid succession of grief – one friend dies, another friend dies, then two more friends die – all in the span of like four days.”
Most of us are lucky enough that we can’t even imagine our friends dying off one by one – in a short span of time. But back in the early ‘80s in New York City this was a startling reality for some. “The script is a window into a time in human history that is not discussed very openly,” says John McKenzie, director of The Normal Heart at The Palace Theatre.
The Normal Heart, debuted in New York in 1985, running for 294 performances in its initial production, and has been adapted on many stages since. The captivating drama tells the story of the public and private indifference to the AIDS epidemic and one man’s lonely fight to awaken the world to the crisis. The story follows Ned Weeks, a gay activist enraged at the indifference of both public officials and the gay community. The Normal Heart is a mostly autobiographical story of playwright Larry Kramer.
McKenzie first read the script for The Normal Heart when he was 21 when a friend gave it to him in theatre school. But he found he couldn’t get through the first two chapters. “At the time, I just didn’t know why I should care. But I picked it up a couple of years ago and it had the opposite effect on me.” McKenzie says life experiences can really a change a person’s perspective. “I just couldn’t even imagine. But between 21 and 30, I had seen a lot more. When you’re 21 you think you’re untouchable. When I re-read it I just couldn’t put it down.”
The Palace is presenting the play on the heels of the release of The Normal Heart HBO film starring Mark Ruffalo, Julia Roberts, Matt Bomer and Jim Parsons. “The play is different from the movie,” McKenzie explains, pointing out that those who have watched the movie will not be seeing the exact same thing again if they decide to give the play a chance. He also notes that there were a number of attempts to get the story onto film before HBO succeeded. Others tried before and failed – most notably Barbra Streisand. “On the heels of the HBO film and recent run on Broadway, people were thinking about it, talking about it,” McKenzie says, indicating why now seemed to be the perfect time to mount a production in London.
He admits that the show, due to its serious subject matter, is not without its challenges. “Most can’t imagine a world where all of our friends are dying, where there’s this rapid succession of grief – one friend dies, another friend dies, then two more friends die – all in the span of like four days.” McKenzie says this is where a very beneficial partnership between The Normal Heart cast and The Regional HIV/AIDS Connection came into play. “We had a wonderful workshop with RHAC, and one of the mentors was around in London in the early ‘80s so we had a lot of conversations about what that period in history was really like. It’s great to watch the actors really understand and get into that headspace.”
McKenzie notes that even though it’s a serious subject matter, there is quite a bit of laughter. “You are almost surprised that you find yourself laughing during a show about something so serious. But there are some great, hilarious characters in this production.”
The Normal Heart runs at The Palace Theatre from November 21, 2014 to December 1, 2014. For their final performance on December 1, The Palace will be hosting the World Aids Day Vigil in Procunier Hall before the performance. A portion of ticket sales that evening will go to the Regional HIV/AIDS Connection.
For more information, and to purchase tickets, visit: www.palacetheatre.ca.
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