In 1981, the first recognized case of AIDS was observed in the United States. Four years later, playwright Larry Kramer premiered his Off-Broadway play titled "The Normal Heart," a show depicting the frustration, confusion and lack of response to the HIV-AIDS outbreak in the early 1980s.

Local playhouse Shot in the Dark Productions will debut its version of "The Normal Heart" on Friday (Feb. 19) at the Evelyn Larson Theatre, 413 Nebraska St. Director Michael Skaff recalled when the AIDS epidemic was in full force. He was in college at the time.

"I remember my art history professor bringing me this article [about the disease] and saying, 'Look at this!'" said Skaff, who noted that Kramer's semi-autobiographical play tackles the real-life panic that ensued when the outbreak occurred.

"I think that fear comes through. They don't know what's happening, how they're getting it or how it's being transmitted. There's a lot of that fear of the unknown."

Emotions were heightened to an extreme degree and "The Normal Heart" represents them all through its characters.

Back then, it was falsely believed that HIV and AIDS only affected select groups of people, mainly homosexual men. Before the disease was dubbed AIDS, it was called gay-related immune deficiency or "GRID" for short. Ned Weeks, the main character in "The Normal Heart," is a gay activist struggling to raise awareness about the then-unknown disease.

Tony Garcia, who plays Ned, said his character's anger runs true throughout the play -- anger towards the amount of silence that took place during the crisis as it was happening.

"There's a lot of frustration," said Garcia. "Why is no one helping? Why is no one listening? He's very vocal, almost too vocal."

For other characters, the fear of being ostracized is of great concern. Kristopher Johnson's character Hiram Keebler, for example, is someone who works in the political spectrum and is in deep contact with the mayor (with whom Ned and the other characters are desperately trying to hold a meeting).

Although Keebler may sympathize with the activists' concerns, he's the bearer of bad news and says the mayor can't do anything to help.

"He's basically saying, 'Although I may be gay myself, I'm not going to let that be known by anyone,'" said Johnson.

While emotions like anger and frustration and confusion are prevalent throughout "The Normal Heart," the play also delves into strong, positive feelings as well -- the kind of sentiments that bring the characters together and fight to raise awareness.

Take Adam Suing's character Felix Turner, for example.

"If there was one specific descriptive word for the way Felix would feel, it would be 'love,'" said Suing. "He believes in love over anything else. He's had the hots for Ned for a very long time, and when he finally gets Ned, he gets AIDS."

"The Normal Heart" covers other issues besides the lack of response during the AIDS epidemic. Skaff said the characters also deal with the problem of homophobia.

"They're saying the government isn't helping them because they're gay," said Skaff. "Jerry Falwell's Moral Majority [a political organization opposing homosexual acts] was really popular back then. We've come a long way."

"The Normal Heart"-- which was revived on Broadway in 2011, earned three Tony Awards and was also adapted into a critically acclaimed TV film on HBO -- will no doubt conjure some sort of emotional response from the audience with its potent themes.

How do the actors create such a reaction? Skaff said the best way is to make it as true and honest as possible. Johnson said putting himself in his character's shoes could also help. Shannon Plucker, however, may know exactly how these characters must have felt during that time.

"I've battled homophobia and I've battled the fear of AIDS my whole life," he said. "It's not a far cry to put myself into their shoes. These were real people. These were real stories. This is a real epidemic."

Actor Dave Washburn added that to set out with a goal to evoke a specific emotional reaction from the audience will usually end in failure. 

"The material itself, when delivered in the proper way, will most likely get the response from an audience because it comes from a very honest place," said Washburn. "It comes from the experience that this author had."

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Weekender reporter

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