URBANA — The University of Illinois Department of Theatre will present the groundbreaking AIDS drama "The Normal Heart," written by Larry Kramer. The play opens Thursday and runs through April 7 in the Studio Theatre at Krannert Center for the Performing Arts.
"The Normal Heart" is set in the early 1980s, when U.S. governmental agencies and health care leaders had not yet come to grips with the challenge that the AIDS epidemic presented.
As a vocal representative of the gay-rights movement, Kramer, a novelist, wrote "The Normal Heart," which UI dramaturg Laura Herbst calls the first enduring on-stage portrayal of AIDS.
Kramer also was a founding member of two influential AIDS organizations: the Gay Men's Health Crisis, which formed in 1982, and the AIDS Coalition To Unleash Power, also known as ACT UP, in 1987.
Henson Keys, director of the acting program in the Department of Theatre, directs "The Normal Heart." He says the play has deep personal meaning for him because he was part of New York City's theatrical community from 1975 to '88.
"At that time in my life, suddenly, in my circle of friends and acting colleagues, men began to sicken and die — wonderful, talented people cut down in the prime of their lives, including my best friend and graduate school roommate," Keys wrote for the program.
By 1985, he wrote, when "The Normal Heart" opened at Joseph Papp's Public Theater in New York, attending another memorial service for someone who had died of AIDS had become almost a weekly ritual for many.
"Here in Larry Kramer's work are people who lived and events that actually took place as the gay community battled for recognition of the epidemic and strove to help desperately sick friends," Keys wrote.
The cast features Grady Brian Krause as Craig Donner; Robert G. Anderson as Mickey Marcus; Neal Moeller, Ned Weeks; Brian Zielnicki, David; Sarah Ruggles, Dr. Emma Brookner; Thom Miller, Bruce Niles; Nick Narcisi, Felix Turner; Timo Aker, Ben Weeks; Donovan Diaz, Tommy Boatwright; Stephanie Galvin, Helen Keebler; Mark E. Fox, examining doctor; and Henry Steinken and Clara Byczkowski, orderlies.
Anderson, Moeller and Miller are members of and appear through the courtesy of Actors' Equity Association, the union of professional actors and stage managers in the United States.
The actors and the production team will greet theatergoers in the Krannert lobby after the performance Thursday. And a free talk back will take place in the Studio Theatre after the Saturday performance.
Herbst wrote that "The Normal Heart" reminds us it is necessary to understand what happened in the past and that it is important to acknowledge the impact AIDS continues to have.
"Today, there are multiple AIDS organizations and campaigns that continue to educate the public and to create a support network for people with the disease," she wrote.
Among them is the Greater Community AIDS Project of East Central Illinois, which sponsors events such as the HIV/AIDS Walk and Run, which falls on April 7 this year, and the annual Artists against AIDS sale, April 4-7. Both events coincide with the UI production of "The Normal Heart."
The curtains times for "The Normal Heart" will be 7:30 p.m. Thursday, Friday and Saturday and April 3-6 and 3 p.m. April 7. Tickets are $16 for adults, $15 for senior citizens and students and $10 for UI students and youths. On Wednesdays and Thursdays, tickets are two for the price of one.
Call 333-6280 for more information.