If there was a road map for breakout theatrical success, “The Normal Heart” misplaced its copy. Larry Kramer’s much-admired, alarm-bell-ringing 1985 drama about the spread of AIDS through the gay community had already been revived many times — and off-Broadway as recently as 2004 — when a plan was hurriedly hatched last year to give it a Broadway debut.
A theater, the Golden, had suddenly become available, and a powerhouse cast that included Joe Mantello, Jim Parsons and Ellen Barkin had been assembled. Originally envisioned in the more modest format of a reading, which would allow the actors to bring their scripts onstage, the revival underwent a last-minute upgrade to a fully staged production, requiring director George C. Wolfe to compress a normal four- or five-week rehearsal schedule into an unheard-of 12 days.
Not exactly reassuring preparation for the nation’s most visible theatrical platform. But the unlikely events that followed — across-the-board sparkling reviews; three Tony Awards, including one for outstanding revival; and the extension of the limited run — bathed this passionate, sobering play in the surprising aura of a commercial hit. And with the scale of that triumph, “The Normal Heart” lives on, both as a planned film (to be directed by “Glee” creator Ryan Murphy) and, more immediately, a re-mounting of the Broadway production at Arena Stage, where the Tony-winning Wolfe, former head of New York’s Public Theater, is making his D.C. directorial debut.
Astonishingly, the engagement, which begins Friday and runs through July 29 in Arena’s Kreeger Theater, represents the first staging of “The Normal Heart” by one of the city’s front-line theater companies; Arlington’s Washington Shakespeare Company produced it in 1995. That Washington has treated it as less than essential to a theater diet is a matter of some perplexity to the 76-year-old Kramer, who regards himself as a native son: He moved with his family from Connecticut to Prince George’s County as a boy, grew up in Mount Rainier and graduated from Woodrow Wilson High School in the District.
But with the timing of this “Normal Heart” — added to Arena’s 2011-12 lineup after a new musical, adapted from “Like Water for Chocolate,” was scrubbed — all just might be forgiven. For this production, featuring two actors from the Broadway incarnation, Patrick Breen and Luke MacFarlane, moving up into the lead roles, arrives at a propitious moment. It will be playing while the 19th International Aids Conference is taking place in Washington. And it’s the fervent wish of Kramer, a writer-activist who co-founded both the Gay Men’s Health Crisis and the more militant ACT UP, that after all these years, the dying and angry voices of “The Normal Heart” get another chance to whisper and shout to the powerful.
“Dr. Fauci is going,” Kramer declares, as he settles into a couch in the living room of his Greenwich Village apartment. Although it takes place in 1981 to ’84 — beginning before the disease even had a name — Kramer’s wish is that the play be treated as contemporarily relevant, not as a period piece. That he’s been assured of an RSVP from Anthony Fauci, a central figure in AIDS research and director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, gives the playwright a lift. He’s a bit unsure about who the audience in Washington will be for the play — he’s asked that an invitation be extended to the Obamas — but Fauci strikes him as a good start.