LARRY KRAMER’S semi-autobiographical play The Normal Heart has finally made it to Broadway 25 years after it was first performed. The searing drama focuses on the terrifying early years of the AIDS epidemic in New York—when it was still referred to as the “gay plague”—and centers on Kramer’s autobiographical character Ned Weeks and his lover Felix Turner, a closeted journalist who gets caught up in the maelstrom of fear, politics, confused medical reports, homophobia, and the relentless loss of life. Kramer’s drama, written in the heat of a life-and-death battle, is freighted with the polemics of blame and responsibility. Today, it is a somber historical account of survival during the harrowing early plague years, complete with lessons learned and forgotten.
John Benjamin Hickey, an acclaimed character actor who plays Felix Turner in the current revival, discussed with me the continuing relevance of Kramer’s drama from his unique perspective as a member of the new ensemble cast. Describing himself as “a journeyman actor,” Hickey started his career by making a name for himself on the Broadway stage, where he originated the role of Arthur in Terrence McNally’s Tony Award-winning play Love! Valour! Compassion! in 1995, for which he won an Obie Award—a role he would recreate for the 1997 film version.
Among his many screen appearances is Hickey’s portrayal of Jack Dunphy, Truman Capote’s lover, in the 2006 biopic Infamous. One of his most important television roles was that of Philip Stoddard on the short-lived gay-themed ABC sitcom It’s All Relative. Currently he’s appearing in the Showtime Golden Globe-winning series The Big C as Sean Tolkey, a homeless
Soon after The Normal Heart opened at the Golden Theater in late April, and just before he was nominated for the Tony Award for Best Supporting Actor, I discussed the challenges of his role, and of being an out actor in homophobic Hollywood.