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In the early days of the plague, as young men in New York City began to contract and soon die from strange diseases like bird tuberculosis and toxoplasmosis, fear and terror took hold of the gay community.

No one knew what was causing the deaths. No one knew how to treat the disease. No one could say with any certainty how to stop it from spreading. All anyone knew was that their friends were dying at an alarming rate, and that almost no one with means seemed interested in helping.

That help was egregiously, criminally late in arriving. And the space between the outset of the HIV/AIDS crisis and the arrival of any significant attention or help from a political structure all too happy to let gay men wither and die provides the setting for Larry Kramer’s extraordinary piece of polemical theater known as “The Normal Heart.”

A compelling production of the 1985 play, directed by Javier Bustillos, opened Friday night in the Buffalo United Artists Theatre, serving as a chilling reminder of that shameful period in American history for those who lived through it and a shocking primer on latent human cruelty for those who didn’t.

All attempts by those of us spared the terror and suffering of this crisis because of age or circumstance to imagine what it must have been like for its victims are doomed. It’s impossible for us to imagine what it must have felt like to lose dozens of close friends in the space of a few months. It’s impossible to guess at the feeling a man got from noticing a dark spot on the bottom of his foot and immediately recognizing it as a death sentence.

But Kramer’s autobiographical play, which chronicles the birth of the HIV/AIDS activism movement and his controversial role in it, comes as close to making those feelings manifest as any piece of literature about the crisis. The play, like the movement, is fueled primarily by Kramer’s incandescent outrage – a character trait that surely saved many lives but which continues to get the playwright into trouble.

Ned Weeks, Kramer’s mildly fictionalized version of himself, comes believably to life in the hands of BUA veteran Matthew Crehan Higgins. As a longtime program coordinator for Erie County Medical Center’s immunodeficiency department, Higgins deals daily with the ongoing ravages of HIV/AIDS. His handling of Weeks, perpetually at the edge of his own rage and sanity, is perhaps not quite as dynamic as the character demands but gets the anger and neurosis just right.

His speeches, seemingly lifted verbatim from Kramer’s own informed ravings, are full of accusations and insults, litanies of complaints and historical injustices. But he can also be brilliantly blunt. When one character, a conservative and closeted gay man, tells Ned that he can’t force people to identify as gay only to help the cause, he responds: “After you’re dead, it doesn’t make any difference.”

The play takes us through Kramer’s founding of a fictional version of Gay Men’s Health Crisis, his friendship with the straight doctor Emma (wonderfully played by Caitlin Coleman), his attempts to get the attention of the indifferent New York City Mayor Ed Koch and finally his painful ousting from the very group he created.

The play contains particularly sensitive and moving performances from Michael Seitz as Ned’s lover, Felix, and from Kevin Craig and Timothy Patrick Finnegan as fellow activists Tommy Boatwright and Mickey Marcus.

“Why should they help us?” Finnegan’s Mickey asks at one point in an exasperated speech chastising the homophobic political establishment. “We’re actually cooperating with them by dying.”

The play suffers from some timing and pacing issues, as well as from a strange selection of interstitial music. But the heart and soul of Kramer’s harrowing experience is there for all to see. It’s not a pretty sight, but it’s one that deserves another look.

email: cdabkowski@buffnews.com