History will be made September 11 when actors from Southeast Michigan’s first-ever production of Larry Kramer’s “The Normal Heart” reunite with an all-star cast of local thespians and politicians at Ferndale’s Ringwald Theatre to raise money for Steppin’ Out’s 18th annual AIDS Walk Detroit.
“We mustn’t forget,” explained Henrietta Hermelin when asked why she jumped at the chance to recreate the role of Dr. Emma from the 1987 production that played to sold out crowds – first at the original Performance Network space in Ann Arbor and again at 1515 Broadway in Downtown Detroit. “It’s so important for those who didn’t go through it to know where the fruits of what we have today came from and why we have them. I think it says some wonderful things about personal involvement and what is important between humans.”
Kramer’s semi-autobiographical tale is often called the most important political play of the late 20th century. “It’s about the beginnings of the AIDS crisis in America – and just how poorly it was handled at the outset,” explained Joe Bailey, artistic director of Who Wants Cake? Theatre, who will play Ned Weeks in the production. “There was a president who didn’t seem to care one way or the other, and it was a struggle to get (anyone) to care about these people who were dying.”
But has anything really changed over the past 20-plus years? Recent statistics from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta reveal that approximately 56,000 new HIV infections occurred in the United States in 2006, while 1.2 million people are currently living with HIV/AIDS, including 440,000 with AIDS. And to date, more than a half-million Americans have died from the disease.
“That’s why the play still strikes me, even though I don’t remember this time (period),” said Joe Plambeck, the event’s 29-year-old director. “I come from a generation where, when I was 18, 19 and 20, I’d go online and all these people my age were barebacking. So the treatment may be different today, but (HIV/AIDS) is still there. And it’s something that my generation and the generation below me may not be paying enough attention to. So the play is still very relevant today.”
And timely, Bailey believes. “The one thing I love about this play is that it does a tremendous job of inspiring people to do SOMETHING. So I think it’s nice we’re doing it close enough to the AIDS Walk that it’s going to be a handy event for people to funnel that energy into.”
In fact, Plambeck added, that’s the main purpose of the fundraiser. “It’s to drive people to go out and put together a team of walkers, or help out financially. Or call Steppin’ Out and ask how they can help. There are hundreds of things people can do.”
“And this is the perfect play for that very reason,” Bailey said.
History in the making
The one-night-only event will not be a fully staged production, but a “dynamic staged reading,” Plambeck explained. “It’s not going to be a line of chairs and people sitting there reading the script. There will be light blocking and such. It will be almost like watching a play with scripts in people’s hands.”
What will make history, however, is the show’s all-star cast. “The actors themselves make the whole thing super dynamic,” Plambeck said.
The region’s acclaimed first production, directed by early AIDS educator Annette Madias, starred a plethora of up-and-coming actors, many of whom went on to notable careers. Duncan Hursley and the Wilde Award-winning Hermelin from the inaugural cast were quick to join the project. So too were more than a dozen actors from all corners of the theater community, including James Bowen, Dave Davies, Alex D. Hill, Sean McGettigan, Scott Meyers, John Prakapas, Jamie Richards and Steve West.
But for many longtime theatergoers, the return of Brian Schultz to the stage will be well worth the admission price. Schultz, who became popular in Detroit’s gay community for the sexy and provocative “Be a Lifeguard” campaign for the Midwest AIDS Prevention Project in the late 1980s, disappeared from the stage several years ago due to complications related to AIDS. But when told about the performance, he eagerly joined the team. “He was thrilled,” Plambeck said. “He had just come off a staged reading at JET, and he really enjoyed being back on stage. And I’m thrilled to have him back.”
Two local politicians are also among the cast. With The Ringwald located in Ferndale and AIDS Walk Detroit in Royal Oak, Plambeck thought it would be a great idea to ask both mayors to participate – and each immediately said yes.
“The great folks at The Ringwald are raising money for Steppin’ Out, and there is no greater cause,” Ferndale’s Craig Covey said. “Anything I can do to help, I’m there. Plus I’m looking for my 15 minutes of fame. Maybe I’ll be discovered.”
Royal Oak’s James Ellison agreed. “Jodie (Ellison) and I have been long time supporters of Steppin’ Out, as well as being part of a very talented and active theater community in the Detroit area. So deciding to participate in this show was kind of a ‘no brainer’ for me. We make time when we have to.”
It truly will be a once-in-a-lifetime evening at the theater, Bailey concluded. “And who wouldn’t want to see that?”