'Normal Heart's' Dylan C. Wack Loves Being Part of Drama's 'Living History'
READ TIME: 8 MIN.
"The Normal Heart" was an urgent message from the front lines of the AIDS epidemic when it was first produced in 1985. Written by Oscar-winning writer-turned-activist Larry Kramer, the play is a largely autobiographical drama in which its protagonist – Ned Weeks – attempts to bring attention to the epidemic growing in New York City in the early 1980s that is predominately affecting gay men. Unfortunately, his effort faces the systemic homophobic of Reagan's America.
The meta-drama brought attention to Kramer, who died at the age of 84 in 2020, whose incendiary voice helped create The Gay Men's Health Crisis (whose development is discussed in the play) and the AIDS activist group ACT UP, formed in 1987, two years after "The Normal Heart" opened at the New York Public Theater. While the play was successfully produced in London, Los Angeles, and around the world, it wouldn't find its way to Broadway until 2011and was made into a film for HBO in 2014. More recently, it had an acclaimed revival at London's Royal National Theater two years ago.
In an upcoming production at the Boston area theater New Rep, Dylan C. Wack plays Ned. The Chicago-based actor returns to Boston where he grew up in the North Shore town of Newburyport and graduated from the Boston University School of Theatre. His professional credits include "Baltimore" (New Repertory Theatre/Boston Center for American Performance), "Fiddler on the Roof" (New Repertory Theatre), "A Midsummer Night's Dream," "Much Ado About Nothing," and "The Tempest" (Commonwealth Shakespeare Company), "As You Like It" (Pittsburgh Irish and Classical Theatre), and "Chicken & Biscuits" (Front Porch Arts Collective). For both "The Tempest" and "Chicken and Biscuits," he shares Best Ensemble awards from the Elliot NortonAwards.
EDGE spoke to the out actor about how he relates to Ned Weeks, what he learned about the AIDS epidemic, and what he would ask Larry Kramer if he had the chance.
EDGE: How did you get involved in this production of "The Normal Heart?"
Dylan C. Wack: I worked at New Repertory Theater back in 2016 and with director Shira Gitlin during the pandemic. We did a Zoom play together. I've sort of known the moving parts of this production for a couple of years now. I did my audition back in April and after a couple of callbacks, I got the role. I am so excited to share this story with everyone who comes to see it.
EDGE: Who is the character you play?
Dylan C. Wack: I play Ned Weeks, who is an activist and a community organizer. The play is set in the 1980s during the outset of the AIDS epidemic. Ned is trying desperately to bring the community together to get recognition from the city and from the CDC and everyone is turning a blind eye to the AIDS epidemic. He is also struggling with the other members of the LGBTQ community. He wants them to fight in one voice and with one purpose.
EDGE: Do you identify with Ned at all? Are you bringing any parts of yourself to your performance?
Dylan C. Wack: I sure am. I identify as queer, and I am very lucky to live in a world where a lot of this work has been happening over the past 40 years. We are still fighting, but the fight certainly feels different right now. I consider myself lucky that it's perhaps a little less dramatic for me personally than it was for the people who this play was written about and was written for. Larry Kramer was really writing it while it was happening. I love that I get to be a part of this living history.
EDGE: What preparation did you do for the role?
Dylan C. Wack: I've been meeting with our director, Shira, to have conversations about what we're hoping the story will look like and feel like. I, personally, have been doing a lot of research. I've been reading a lot of articles that were published in the eighties. I am excited about the relationship that Chingwe Sullivan have created. He is playing Felix Turner.
EDGE: "The Normal Heart" is such an emotionally draining story. As an actor, it must be exhausting to act in.
Dylan C. Wack: It is for sure, but it's truly an honor to be a part of this. I don't love using the word "blessing", but it's a blessing. It will be exhausting, but what a joy to be able to tell this story and have the opportunity to be brought through the ringer a couple of times a week to tell this story. I wouldn't want it any other way.
EDGE: What scenes are the most difficult and exhilarating for you to perform?
Dylan C. Wack: There's a beautiful monologue that's the climax of the play. Ned gives this monologue that is really a Hail Mary. He is speaking to Bruce Niles (played by Brian Demar Jones) who's also in this organization that they're trying to forge through the fire. It's a beautiful monologue where he talks about belonging to a community, and then he goes on to list about 20 historical figures who are now thought of to be accepted as members of the LGBTQ community but weren't at the time.
It is really a thrilling monologue to recite. Every time I read it, chills runs down my spine and I can't believe that I get to say those words.
EDGE: What have you learned from this play that you didn't know before about AIDS crisis?
Dylan C. Wack: There's been a lot of continued attention about the AIDS crisis, even in the media. I think about how the recent season of "American Horror Story" dealt with it. For many of us, 40 years ago really seems like a lifetime ago, but we need to continue to talk about it and not ignore it. At the time, the government's response was to ignore it and hopefully it would go away. With this play, we continue to tell the story of what a community can do and what it means. We need to continue to enact change and be there for each other, especially when it comes to fighting these anti-trans bills. We need to band together and stand up, because it's dangerous for people when the government decides to turn a blind eye and starts to allow people to be in danger.
EDGE: If you could ask Larry Kramer any question, what would it be?
Dylan C. Wack: I would have like to know what his next fight was going to be. In the playbill, he wrote a letter that stated this is not a history play. This is still happening. This is still our fight, and it continues. We are still losing people. I'm sure that he would still be fighting for our rights, but where should we be putting our energy?
EDGE: What important messages does your generation take from this history lesson?
Dylan C. Wack: Shira and I have actually talked about this because there have been questions like "Why this play, why now?" There are young queer people for whom this is all a distant memory. This play is now becoming more of a history play. I think that's exciting. At first glance, it's a history play, but when you actually sit with it and read it, it still has teeth, and it demands attention. I'm excited to learn and I'm excited for my generation to learn and get them to recognize how much work was put in and how much work was ignored for so long. We should never take for granted where we are and how we got here. There are still people across this great country of ours that are still in the fight. For so many, just simply saying, "I am a gay person or I'm a queer person" is an act of defiance. This play really challenges me to not take any of it for granted.
"The Normal Heart" runs through July 9, 2023 at the New Rep at Black Box Theater of the Mosesian Center for the Performing Arts in Watertown, MA. For more information, visit the New Rep website.