‘The Normal Heart’ still beats strong

The Road Company Theater Group is bringing acclaimed HIV/AIDS drama “The Normal Heart” to New Jersey through Sept. 24 at The Grand Theatre.

The play, written by playwright and activist Larry Kramer about the early days of the epidemic, is set in the early 1980s when a mysterious “cancer” was killing gay men in New York. It tells the story from the perspective of a gay man, Ned, a civil-rights advocate, who enlists the help of a doctor, Emma Brookner, who is frustrated with the lack of attention that this medical crisis was being given.

Bryan Mead, the show’s director, said he thought it was going to be difficult to cast such a groundbreaking play in that particular location, but the production has attracted a very capable and knowledgeable roster of actors.

“With a smaller show like this, in community theater sometimes plays can be difficult to cast,” he said. “Some of the people that came out have a really great knowledge behind the project. Some people knew Larry Kramer back from when they lived in New York City in the ’80s. It was incredible to get people like that to be a part of the show.”

Mead said he expects the show to attract people who lived through those years as well as audiences more familiar with the film adaptation that aired in 2014.

“We have the younger generation that is probably more familiar with the HBO film that came out,” he said. “Whether it’s the stage production or the film, it’s really an important piece for people to get knowledge about. For the older crowds in particular, I think it’s going to be a reminder of what was happening at that time. More or less, it’s going to get both generations to agree that it was politically unjust what happened to the community, and that still to this day we’re going through a lot of tribulations in regards to the stigma behind the disease.”

 Mead said this play is as timely and relevant today as it was when it debuted off-Broadway in the mid-1980s.

“At the time this play was written, Larry Kramer based the characters off of real people,” he said. “The main character, Ned, talks about the relation of what is happening at the time and how they were treating the gay community in regards to the disease, kind of like the Jews during the Holocaust. Everyone was turning their back to it, not paying attention and acting like nothing was happening. When you look at what’s going on with our current political situation and certain people in charge and how they look at certain communities, it’s unfortunate that we still have to go through these reoccurring historical events.”

Mead added that the show’s message is also relevant to a generation that grew up without HIV/AIDS being equated to a quick and agonizing death sentence.

“Even when you look at it today, the pharmaceutical companies are running America and the economy,” he said. “It’s still something that is corporate-run and it’s not something that is looking out for the people and eradicating the epidemic, which everyone refuses to call it. There’s still a huge revolution that needs to happen in regards to HIV and AIDS to this day, the same as when it was happening in the 1980s.”

The Road Company presents “The Normal Heart” through Sept. 24 at the Grand Theatre, 405 S. Main St., Williamstown, N.J. For more information or tickets, call 856-728-2120 or visit www.roadcompany.com.