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A 'Heart'-to-Hearts Talk Across the Footlights : Actors, Audience at Las Palmas Theater Grapple With a Play's Issues Concerning the AIDS Crisis

January 16, 1986|LYNN SIMROSS | Times Staff Writer

I don't think this play is a great play as a play. I think it is great as a fire. It is supposed to kindle something in you. I've been talking about AIDS for three months now, in conversations, so it's done its job . ... I would love to play this play in front of people who don't like gays, people who think AIDS is an efficient disease.

--Actor Richard Dreyfuss, who portrays a gay activist in "The Normal Heart"

Richard Dreyfuss and other cast members of "The Normal Heart," along with Los Angeles clinical psychologist Rob Eichberg, decided to talk with the audience about AIDS after the Sunday-evening performance at the Las Palmas Theater in Hollywood.

They wondered what theatergoers would have to say about such a play, an angry, emotional work dealing with acquired immune deficiency syndrome. The house was filled to its 377-person capacity, and the crowd was mixed--young and elderly, male and female, gay and straight.

Eichberg, who has been active in the gay community since the mid-1970s, moderated the discussion, fielding questions from an expressive audience.

He had mailed out invitations to family, friends, clients and persons who had attended his previous workshops to come to the performance, and was pleased with their response.

"One of the unsung heroes of AIDS, to me, is Larry Kramer, who wrote this play," Eichberg said, initiating cheers from the crowd. "Several years ago when he wrote his article (about the AIDS crisis) for Native (a publication for gays) I thought he was creating panic. I have apologized to him since. To this day, many of us are still in a state of denial (about AIDS)."

Eichberg's mother, Shirley, said she'd persuaded about 35 of her heterosexual friends to attend, and was glad she had.

"I was pleasantly surprised, because I had read such mediocre reviews and it was really excellent," she said afterward. "I brought a heterosexual population and they were overwhelmed by it. After it was over, I thought they had a lot more compassion.

"When you're spending $22.50 a ticket or $45 a couple, most people don't want to see anything that's going to make them depressed," Shirley Eichberg added. "That's a sad commentary. But they really should see this to understand what's going on."

Through its cast of nine, each character based on an actual individual, the play portrays the frustrations and struggles the homosexual community has had in dealing with the health crisis--coming to grips with its deadliness, getting support from the heterosexual community, recognition from the media or funding from politicians to find a cure or a vaccine.

Although some of "The Normal Heart's" material is dated--the AIDS virus has been identified, though no vaccine has been found; much more funding has come from national, state and local levels for AIDS research and education; and the media is paying attention to the crisis--many of its issues are still timely.

The play takes place from July, 1981, to May, 1984, when gays in New York were trying to get city officials and the medical establishment to go public in recognizing that AIDS was of epidemic proportions in the gay community and to do something about it.

Their pleas, playwright Kramer asserts in his script, fell on deaf ears. But, Sunday night, this audience was listening, and asking questions.

There was candor from both cast and audience.

Fear in the Community

"There is a lot of fear in our community, a lot of talk about sickness in our community," said Barney Alfs, a member of the audience who said he was hosting in his home a visitor from New York who has AIDS. "There's a lot of anger, too, and a lot of anger in this play. But my hope is that this is part of a healing practice for all of us. Personal responsibility and loving oneself are essential adjuncts to medical treatment."

Several other people in the audience admitted that the play had made them angry.

A woman who identified herself as straight said she had related to the play because "its issues affect us and still make people angry."

She also talked about how AIDS affected her life and those of her heterosexual friends. "I am more careful whom I am involved with now," she said. "And I am looking for an intimate relationship. That's an important issue to us."

"Everyone should be angry when they see this play, and they should stay angry until something is finally done," said Eric Rofe, new director of the Gay and Lesbian Community Services Center in Hollywood.

One woman asked if it was true, as the script said, that New York politicians ignored the AIDS epidemic because they were afraid it would ruin tourism.

"In the play Larry accuses New York City of complicity (in the AIDS crisis)," said actor Vincent Caristi, who portrays Mickey Marcus, a promiscuous homosexual. "The analogy is the same. . . . The idea that New York City kept this quiet is an outrage. It should outrage everybody."

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