'Normal Heart' Stirs Up the Heartland : Springfield, Mo., is divided over its university's staging of a play about AIDS

"I don't think this play is a great play as a play ," Richard Dreyfuss said when he starred in the 1985 Los Angeles premiere of "The Normal Heart," Larry Kramer's angry depiction of the early days of the AIDS crisis. "I think it is great as a fire. It's supposed to kindle something in you."

Dreyfuss was referring to the play's call for greater public attention and education on the AIDS epidemic. But on Nov. 15 in the small Ozark city of Springfield, Mo., the fire Kramer's play was meant to spark took on an utterly different, more ghastly meaning.

That night, as the theater department of Southwest Missouri State University opened its production of "The Normal Heart" in the face of strong local opposition, a suspicious fire gutted the house of a vocal supporter of the school's right to stage the play.

The ideological clash followed recent attempts in Congress to limit public funding, through the National Endowment for the Arts, of material deemed offensive or pornographic. The "Normal Heart" controversy has raised, as well, issues of artistic and academic freedom, the limits of censorship and expression, and the role of the arts and education in the public sphere. A number of film and theater celebrities have joined in the debate on behalf of the university.

The home, rented by SMS theater performance major Brad Evans, was targeted by an arsonist, Springfield fire investigators have confirmed. The investigation, conducted by local and state authorities, is ongoing but no suspects have been identified. Springfield fire officials said they have not linked the arson with the events surrounding the campus production.

The fire marked the culmination of weeks of heated debate over the rights of the university to stage a play that itself explores the debate that gripped the New York gay community during the onset of the AIDS epidemic in the early 1980s. The Springfield-based Citizens Demanding Standards, organizing a rally attended by 1,200 people and collecting a reported 5,000 petition signatures in a community of 133,000, protested that a school financed with taxpayers' money should not present material that, in the words of CDS president Paul Summers, "promoted a homosexual political agenda many in the community find offensive."

(The community is one in which some films, such as Martin Scorsese's "The Last Temptation of Christ," have never been theatrically released. Springfield, located in the heart of the so-called Bible Belt, is home to the national headquarters of Assemblies of God--the church for which Jim Bakker and Jimmy Swaggart were ministers.)

In the days that followed the arson, many in Springfield echoed the feelings of Evans, who said that the incident "slapped Springfield in the face, and made people think more fully about what all the fuss was about. Even on the night of the fire, I thought that good things would come out of this. And they have."

"The fuss" began in September, when, according to Summers and CDS supporter Rev. Kenneth Gillming, a university drama student provided state Rep. Jean Dixon (R-Springfield) with a copy of "The Normal Heart." Dixon met with Bethany Oberst, dean of the College of Arts and Letters, requesting that portions of the play be censored for the college production. If not, she asked that the show be canceled.

Dixon did not return phone calls from The Times regarding this story, after repeated attempts to contact her.

Dixon then met with SMS president Marshall Gordon, who had already received a legal opinion from university counsel that her request amounted to a violation of the First Amendment. Dick Kurtenbach of the American Civil Liberties Union's Kansas City office seconded this opinion and forwarded his response to university officials. "We did this," Kurtenbach explained, "since this kind of notification tends to strengthen the resolve of a university to follow through on their actions."

That resolve was tested to the limit by what happened next. Joined by several Springfield church leaders and citizens who formed Citizens Demanding Standards, Dixon and her supporters introduced new complaints, which echoed those of Sen. Jesse Helms (R-N.C.) in his attacks on NEA funding for the exhibiting of controversial artwork--that state funds should not be used to promote homosexuality.

The university board of regents made no decision on Dixon's new demands, which she presented during their Oct. 20 meeting. That meant her request to shut down the production was denied.

CDS took out an advertisement in the Oct. 29 issue of the Springfield News-Leader protesting the use of tax money to mount the play.

Two days later, Brad Evans and his fellow theater students were concerned that their department, the production and its director, John McElhaney, weren't receiving much visible support. They came up with an idea: Cut some red felt in the shape of hearts and pass them out to anyone willing to wear this symbol of support. That day, 400 were distributed, 1,400 more were cut out, and People Acting With Compassion and Tolerance (PACT) formed.

In the days before the play opened, debates involving critics and advocates of the university raged on television, radio and in speakers halls. According to News-Leader reports, Gene Antonio, author of "The AIDS Cover-Up?" and a guest speaker at a CDS rally, declared that "homosexuality is about as normal as trying to eat a carrot by sticking it in your ear. The ear was not designed for the carrot, and the carrot was not designed for the ear." He added that homosexuals raising their voice in protest is "warfare."

At an SMS campus meeting, Dr. Mervyn F. Silverman, president of the American Foundation for AIDS Research, responded that "just when the Berlin Wall is coming down, just when people have been fighting . . . for the chance to hear everything they might want to hear and make their own decisions, we see almost an attempt to put a Berlin Wall around this theater on this campus."

It so happens that some major Hollywood stars were trained at the SMS theater department. As word spread of the Springfield fracas, former SMS students Tess Harper, Kathleen Turner and John Goodman came back to town. They spoke at a PACT rally held just before the play opened its nine-day run at the campus' Coger Theatre.

"Trying to tell people that you can't teach plays like this is like telling biology professors that they can't teach Darwin," said Harper. It was a deeply personal effort for Harper, since five friends from her college days in Springfield have died from the effects of AIDS. "Watching the play again," she recalled, "brought back memories of my friends, and made me impress on these kids how crucial it is for them to know about this disease. That's what the play is all about."

Playwright Lanford Wilson ("Tally's Folly," "The Fifth of July"), who grew up 40 miles from Springfield in Lebanon and attended SMS for a semester, wrote an impassioned essay for the News-Leader that stated in part: "Don't even think about protesting the theater for carrying out its job. Don't expect to come to the theater expecting us to conform to the community standards of morality. That's not our job. We would rather die first."

CDS president Summers recounted numerous incidents in which members of his group were labeled "fascists, Nazis and hate-mongers. But we didn't call anyone names."

Outspoken advocates on both sides reportedly received veiled phone threats. University security was significantly beefed up; most of the cast and crew of "The Normal Heart" accepted the university's offer for secure housing during the course of the show's run. "I didn't recognize my town for all that was going on," said one observer.

Finally, just when the sight of a packed opening night and a sold-out engagement appeared to end the debate, news spread through town that Brad Evans' home had been burned. (On the night of the fire, "Heart" director McElhaney received an anonymous phone call. The voice said, "You're next," then hung up.)

"I lost both of my cats," Evans said, "and I was able to retrieve a basket's worth of clothes. That was it." CDS expressed its outrage at the act by sweetening the reward for arrest and conviction of the arsonist; the reward has now reached $11,000. Evans received an unexpected visit of consolation from Dixon, and an even more unexpected call from New York tycoon Donald Trump, whose secretary told Evans that Trump wanted to help. As of press time, Evans did not know what form Trump's support would take.

Rather than having a chilling effect on artistic and academic expression, however, the events in Springfield appear to have stiffened the resolve of the theater department. "Will it make us shy away (from controversial plays)? No, it will make us firmer in our choices," stated department head Robert Bradley. "One of the things that has come out of this is that each year, we need to do at least one play dealing honestly and artistically with social problems, as 'The Normal Heart' did."

"Theater is supposed to shock you out of your complacency," remarked actress Harper in a telephone interview last week. "It can't help it. I had to laugh when I learned that the Springfield community playhouse is next staging 'The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas'!"

Playwright Wilson expressed concern about "terrorism in my own back yard, a place where folks always argued, but always listened to each other. I hope this isn't the start of an anti-gay or anti-rights movement. But I don't think they realize what kind of response they'll get from the people they're attacking, especially from artists."

Part of the fallout on the SMS campus has been a raft of discussions, not only on AIDS awareness, but on First Amendment and creative expression issues. "Our country," said Dixon critic and fellow state Rep. Doug Harpool (D-Springfield), "would be in deep jeopardy if politicians had the power to deny discussion of ideas which offended their personal morality."

But Rev. Gillming retorted that "we have to come back to morals, or the country is in deep trouble."

Reached by phone in New York, "Normal Heart" playwright Larry Kramer expressed puzzlement over the extent of the controversy, which he said his play had not raised before.

However, he looked beyond the country's heartland with his concerns. "I think that what went wrong in Springfield," said Larry Kramer, "is another example of the kind of bigotry Hollywood studios practice when they won't make movies about AIDS, or when our government refuses to put anyone in charge of the epidemic. It's all part of the same homophobia."

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