During the early 1980s, Jewish-American writer and gay activist Ned Weeks struggles to pull together an organization focused on raising awareness about the fact that an unidentified disease is killing off an oddly specific group of people: gay men largely in New York City. Dr. Emma Brookner, a physician and survivor of polio, as a consequence of which she is using a wheelchair, is the most experienced with this strange new outbreak and bemoans the lack of medical knowledge on the illness, encouraging the abstinence of gay men for their own safety, since it is unknown yet even how the disease is spread. Ned, a patient and friend of Brookner, calls upon his lawyer brother, Ben, to help fund his crisis organization; however, Ben's attitude toward his brother is to give merely passive support, ultimately exposing his apparent homophobia. For the first time in his life, meanwhile, Ned falls in love, beginning a relationship with New York Times writer Felix Turner.
The increasing death toll raises the unknown illness, now believed to be caused by a virus, to the status of an epidemic, though the press remains largely silent on the issue. A sense of urgency guides Ned who realizes that Ben is more interested in buying a two-million-dollar house than in backing Ned's activism. Ned explosively breaks off ties to his brother until Ben can fully accept Ned and his homosexuality. Ned next looks to Mayor Ed Koch's administration for aid in financing research about the epidemic that is quickly killing off hundreds of gay men, including some of Ned's personal friends.
Ned's organization elects as its president Bruce Niles, who is described as the "good cop" of gay activism, in comparison to Ned; while Bruce is cautious, polite, deferential, and closeted, Ned is vociferous, confrontational, incendiary, and supportive only of direct action. Tensions between the two are clear, though they must work together toward the promotion of their organization. Felix, meanwhile, reveals to Ned his belief that he is infected with the mysterious virus.
Although he continues to try to strengthen interactions with the mayor, Ned ruins his chances when his relentless and fiery personality appalls a representative sent by the mayor. Dr. Brookner gradually takes the role of activist herself, noting the epidemic's appearance in other countries around the world and even among heterosexual couples. Although she desperately asks for government funding for further research, she is denied; the rejection releases in her a passionate tirade against those who allow the persistence of an epidemic that is taking the lives of the homosexual individuals already marginalized by the government. In the meantime, Ned's conflict with Bruce comes to a head, and their organization's board of directors ultimately expels Ned from the group, believing his unstable vehemence to be a threat to the group's attempts at more calm-mannered diplomacy.
As Felix's condition worsens, he visits Ben Weeks in order to make his will and with a hope of reconciling Ben with his brother. Felix soon dies and Ned blames himself for Felix's death, lamenting that he did not fight hard enough to have his voice heard. The mortality rate from HIV/AIDS is shown to continue increasing as the stage fades to black.
After most performances of the 2011 revival of The Normal Heart, Kramer personally passed out a dramaturgical flyer detailing some of the real stories behind the play's characters. Kramer wrote that the character "Bruce" was based on Paul Popham, the president of the GMHC from 1981 until 1985; "Tommy" was based on Rodger McFarlane, who was executive director of GMHC and a founding member of ACT UP and Broadway Cares; and "Emma' was modeled after Dr. Linda Laubenstein, who treated some of the first New York cases of what was later known as AIDS. Like "Ned," Kramer himself helped to found several AIDS-activism groups, including Gay Men's Health Crisis (GMHC) and AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power (ACT UP), and indeed experienced personal conflict with his lawyer brother, Arthur.
It has been suggested (though not by Kramer himself) that the model for 'Felix' was John Duka, a New York Times style reporter who died of AIDS-related complications in 1989.
Produced by Joseph Papp and directed by Michael Lindsay-Hogg, the play opened Off-Broadway at The Public Theater on April 21, 1985, and ran for 294 performances. The original cast included Brad Davis as Ned and D. W. Moffett as Felix, with David Allen Brooks as Bruce Niles and Concetta Tomei as Dr. Emma Brookner (based on Linda Laubenstein, M.D.). Joel Grey replaced Davis later in the run.
The play received its European premiere in 1986 at London's Royal Court Theatre where it was directed by David Hayman and produced by Bruce Hyman. In that production Ned Weeks was initially played by Martin Sheen who received an Olivier Award nomination as Best Actor. When it transferred to the Albery Theatre (now the Noël Coward theatre) Ned Weeks was played by Tom Hulce and then John Shea. For that production Paul Jesson, who played Felix, won the Laurence Olivier Award for Best Performance in a Supporting Role.
In a student production of the play at Cambridge University in 1988, the role of Felix was played by Nick Clegg.
The play received its Australian premiere at the Sydney Theatre Company in 1989 directed by Wayne Harrison.
In subsequent productions of the play, Ned Weeks was portrayed by Richard Dreyfuss in Los Angeles, and Raul Esparza in a 2004 Off-Broadway revival directed by David Esbjornson at the Public.
On April 18, 1993, Barbra Streisand organized and introduced a benefit reading for Broadway Cares at the Roundabout Theatre Company (she had been slated to be in the film). It starred Kevin Bacon, John Turturro, Harry Hamlin, D.W. Moffett, Tony Roberts, David Drake, Kevin Geer, Eric Bogosian, Jonathan Hadary and Stockard Channing as Emma Brookner.
Kramer wrote a sequel about Ned Weeks in 1992, The Destiny of Me.
The Broadway premiere of The Normal Heart began on April 19, 2011, for a limited 12-week engagement at the Golden Theatre. This production used elements employed in a staged reading, directed by Joel Grey, held in October 2010. The cast featured Joe Mantello as Ned, Ellen Barkin (making her Broadway debut) as Dr. Brookner, John Benjamin Hickey as Felix, Lee Pace as Bruce Niles, and Jim Parsons as Tommy Boatwright (both Pace and Parsons made their Broadway debuts). Joel Grey made his Broadway directing debut; George C. Wolfe was supervising director. The production supported several "nonprofit organizations, including The Actors Fund and Friends In Deed."
A production at Washington, D.C.'s, Arena Stage was scheduled to run from June 8 to July 29, 2012.
A production produced by Studio 180 Theatre at Buddies in Bad Times theatre in Toronto, Ontario, in 2011 and 2012 starred Jonathan Wilson as Ned Weeks and John Bourgeois as Ben.
Ryan Murphy said in an August 2011 interview with Deadline that he had optioned The Normal Heart and intended to produce the film version, starring Mark Ruffalo "and maybe Julia Roberts". The Hollywood Reporter confirmed the film news in January 2012, adding Alec Baldwin, Matt Bomer, and Jim Parsons to the previously announced cast. In March 2013, Taylor Kitsch joined the cast. In April 2013, the casting of actors Jonathan Groff and Joe Mantello was announced. In May 2013, it was announced that Alfred Molina would be replacing Alec Baldwin. The film adaptation débuted on the HBO premium pay cable channel on Sunday, May 25, 2014, at 9 p.m. ET.
In his review in The New York Times, Frank Rich observed, "In this fiercely polemical drama ... the playwright starts off angry, soon gets furious and then skyrockets into sheer rage. Although Mr. Kramer's theatrical talents are not always as highly developed as his conscience, there can be little doubt that The Normal Heart is the most outspoken play around – or that it speaks up about a subject that justifies its author's unflagging, at times even hysterical, sense of urgency. ... Mr. Kramer has few good words to say about Mayor Koch, various prominent medical organizations, The New York Times or, for that matter, most of the leadership of an unnamed organization apparently patterned after the Gay Men's Health Crisis. Some of the author's specific accusations are questionable, and, needless to say, we often hear only one side of inflammatory debates. But there are also occasions when the stage seethes with the conflict of impassioned, literally life-and-death argument. ... The writing's pamphleteering tone is accentuated by Mr. Kramer's insistence on repetition - nearly every scene seems to end twice - and on regurgitating facts and figures in lengthy tirades. Some of the supporting players ... are too flatly written to emerge as more than thematic or narrative pawns. The characters often speak in the same bland journalistic voice - so much so that lines could be reassigned from one to another without the audience detecting the difference. If these drawbacks ... blunt the play's effectiveness, there are still many powerful vignettes sprinkled throughout."
Jack Kroll of Newsweek called it "extraordinary" and added, "It is bracing and exciting to hear so much passion and intelligence. Kramer produces a cross fire of life-and-death energies that create a fierce and moving human drama." In the New York Daily News, Liz Smith said, "An astounding drama . . . a damning indictment of a nation in the middle of an epidemic with its head in the sand. It will make your hair stand on end even as the tears spurt from your eyes." Rex Reed stated, "No one who cares about the future of the human race can afford to miss The Normal Heart," while director Harold Prince commented, "I haven't been this involved – upset – in too damn long. Kramer honors us with this stormy, articulate theatrical work."
On the day The Normal Heart opened, a spokesman for The New York Times addressed statements in the play about the newspaper's failure to give the disease adequate coverage. He said that as soon as The Times became aware of AIDS, it assigned a member of the science staff to cover the story, and his article appeared on July 3, 1981, making The Times "one of the first – if not the first – national news media to alert the public to the scientific recognition and spread of the disease." He also cited a later full-length report in The New York Times Magazine about recent discoveries made by researchers. When asked about his negative portrayal in The Normal Heart, former New York City Mayor Ed Koch said through a spokesman, "I haven't seen the play. But I hope it's as good as As Is, which is superb."
In 2000, the Royal National Theatre named The Normal Heart one of the 100 greatest plays of the 20th century. In his 2004 book, How to Do the History of Homosexuality, David Halperin criticized the character of Ned Weeks for surrendering to "gay chauvinism" and "homosexual essentialism" through "various strategies of elitism and exclusion" when he lists renowned homosexuals he considers part of his culture.
Of the 2011 Broadway revival of the play, Ben Brantley wrote in The New York Times:
"What this interpretation makes clear, though, is that Mr. Kramer is truly a playwright as well as a pamphleteer (and, some might add, a self-promoter). Seen some 25 years on, The Normal Heart turns out to be about much more than the one-man stand of Ned Weeks, the writer who takes it upon himself to warn gay men about AIDS (before it was even identified as such) and alienates virtually everyone he comes across. Ned Weeks — need I say? — is Larry Kramer, with a thoroughness that few onstage alter-egos can claim."
On June 12, 2011, Ellen Barkin and John Benjamin Hickey won the Tony Awards for Best Performance by a Featured Actress and Actor, respectively, for its Broadway debut, while the production won Best Revival of a Play.Awards
Tony Award for Best Revival of a Play in 2011
Tony Award for Best Featured Actor in a Play – John Benjamin Hickey
Tony Award for Best Featured Actress in a Play – Ellen Barkin
Tony Award for Best Actor in a Play – Joe Mantello
Tony Award for Best Direction of a Play – Joel Grey and George C. Wolfe