Opening weekend of StageWorks Fresno’s rendition of “The Normal Heart” debuted this past Friday in Downtown Fresno at the Fresno Art Museum.
“The Normal Heart,” which depicts the genesis of the AIDS crisis between 1981 and 1984, follows the life of activist and writer Ned Weeks as he and a group of colleagues come together to form the Gay Men’s Health Crisis, an activist hotline and organization that spread advocacy and disseminated information throughout New York City. It eventually gained traction across the United States, facing immense opposition from both the political and social spheres alike.
Playwright Larry Kramer first published the play in 1985, but it wasn’t until 2011 that the Broadway revival brought Kramer a Tony award. With the recent HBO film adaptation directed by Ryan Murphy and produced by Brad Pitt, more attention has been putting the spotlight back on AIDS—attention that outgoing, often outspoken Weeks himself would have championed.
“At the time he wrote it, no one paid attention to it,” said director and Fresno State theater professor J. Daniel Herring. “There are going to be people in this audience now who are going to come out and say thank you for telling my story, or my friend Joe’s story or Sam’s story, and there are going to be other people who walk out of this audience and say I had no idea, I had no idea that this happened, that this was the way it was.”
Complete with a wide-ranging cast from actor Terry Lewis’ Ned Weeks to Fresno State students Dillon Morgan as Weeks’ closeted lover Felix Turner, Ryan Torres as Mickey Marcus, and Nicholas Rodriguez as David and an examining doctor, Fresno State is deeply embedded within the production.
StageWorks Fresno, founded in 2010, strives to “entertain, educate and enrich the community by providing professional theatrical experiences to performers and audience alike,” and felt that choosing “The Normal Heart” in today’s world was a perfect topical example.
“It was a title that really challenged our audience,” said Joel Abels, artistic director for StageWorks Fresno. “Because of the prominence of social media—everything is so right there in our face—we are really desensitized to the plight of everything that’s going on in the world, and it’s important to be reminded of this.”
Touching on the generational gap between some of the actors, Abels noted the lack of historical background that many had not heard of or learned about in their lives.
“We have cast members who really didn’t know the history,” Abels said, “until they delved into this play, and really have come away looking at it from a completely different perspective.”
The Fresno Art Museum, in conjunction with StageWorks production of “The Normal Heart,” will also be displaying four sections from the internationally celebrated AIDS Memorial Quilt – a 54-ton, handmade tapestry that stands as a memorial to more than 94,000 individuals lost to AIDS.
“They really felt how powerful a double art experience dealing with the same topic could be,” said Herring of the quilt’s prominence, adding a physical, permanent visual to the production.
Listed amongst the panels is Brad Davis, who acted in the original Broadway production in 1985 and was diagnosed with the disease himself later that year.
“There’s a generation of people who just don’t have the idea that this many people died before there was ever any kind of drug therapy that could keep people alive for many, many years,” Herring said. “That’s the generation that’s at Fresno State that needs to see and hear this story.”
StageWorks’ “The Normal Heart” will run Fridays and Saturdays at 8 p.m. and Sundays at 2 p.m. at the Bonner Auditorium of the Fresno Art Museum, with the last performance on Sept. 28. A special benefit performance for Fresno State’s Bulldog Pride scholarship fund will also take place on Thursday, Sept. 25, including a post show champagne reception with cast members.