Early outrage over AIDS crisis reaches DC stage

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In the play, Weeks, like Kramer, went on to co-found the activist and support group Gay Men’s Health Crisis to push politicians, doctors and the media to take AIDS seriously.

Breen, 51, who plays the lead role, said Kramer’s play was a wakeup call in 1985 for some of his own friends and may have saved their lives. Many cast members also know friends who died. Each contributed names of people who were lost to be projected among thousands of other names as part of a memorial wall at the play’s ending.

“In a way, we are performing in their honor,” Breen said. “It becomes the Vietnam Memorial, like any memorial in D.C.”

MacFarlane, 32, who broke network television ground on ABC’s “Brothers & Sisters” as part of a gay couple who marry and adopt a daughter, said he was struck by how AIDS pushed the gay rights movement to evolve.

“Historically, there seems to have been a shift where gay men learned to love each other in a different way, to take care of each other,” he said.

In “The Normal Heart” he plays Felix, who is Weeks’ dying lover. When he finds out he’s infected, there’s still confusion about how the disease is spread or whether he could infect his partner.

“Can we kiss?” Felix asks his doctor.

“I don’t know,” she says back.

The story also looked ahead to the prospect of gay marriage at a time when that wasn’t even on the table, Breen said. Still, Kramer argues for bigger goals and equal rights to help fight the AIDS crisis.

While the District of Columbia is among a handful of states that have since legalized same-sex marriage, “The Normal Heart” is a timely story for Washington. The capital remains a city with one of the highest HIV/AIDS infection rates.

Kramer and the show’s producers have invited President Barack Obama and the first lady to see the play at Arena Stage.

“Now that he’s come out for gay marriage, he doesn’t lose any political capital by coming to see this,” the 76-year-old writer and activist said. “He might even gain a little more.”

The theater is displaying sections of the AIDS Memorial Quilt in its lobby with a small exhibit on AIDS history from the Smithsonian. It’s also hosting community discussions with experts and health professionals each Sunday. And as audiences depart the theater after the show, a letter from Kramer is handed out, detailing the ongoing epidemic.

Broadway producer Daryl Roth shepherded the production to Washington after its award-winning Broadway run when she heard of the world AIDS conference. Roth said she knew it would be the “perfect time” for theater that holds a mirror up to society with a story that still resonates.

“There are a lot of people that _ here’s a big news flash _ that are still homophobic,” she said. “And you know, people came to see this play, and I know minds were changed.”

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