Three Tony Awards and two nominations honored the 2011 revival of Larry Kramer's "The Normal Heart" based on his own battle during the AIDS epidemic. Now the drama is playing in Washington, where the playwright spent his formative years.
"Larry is excited that 'The Normal Heart' is being done in his hometown," said Christopher J. Hanke, who plays Tommy Boatwright. "Washington doesn't go unscathed in this political satire that lashes out at certain individuals, but the fact that his work has been recognized is a dream come true. He feels that young people who weren't there need to know what a scary time it was. By educating them through his story, he touches the lives of people who see him laughing through his pain."
Hanke was in Los Angeles filming the Lifetime series "The Client List," starring Jennifer Love Hewitt, when he heard about casting for this production of "The Normal Heart." Unable to return to New York for auditions, he sent a video to director George C. Wolfe along with a plea to be considered for the role Jim Parsons played prior to Parsons taking the lead in the new Broadway production of "Harvey." Hanke's flair for comedy, exhibited as Bud Frump in "How To Succeed in Business Without Really Trying," was a plus.
|'The Normal Heart'|
|Where: Arena Stage, 1101 Sixth St. SW|
|When: Through July 29|
|Info: $40 to $94; 202-488-3300; arenastage.org|
|Benefit show July 23; Mead Center for American Theater; $75 to $500; 202-600-4030|
Hanke described the set of "The Normal Heart" as very minimal, more like a white box with three walls. This enables the audience to focus on the actors and absorb the power of the language. From a distance, the three walls look as if they are made of white brick, but a closer view reveals many words and names printed on them, names like "Mayor Koch" and others significant in the epidemic in ways both good and bad.
A native of Hot Springs, Ark., Hanke grew up in the church and attributes his wonderful singing voice to the choirs of his early years. He was headed for medical school until spending a summer of study in London. There he absorbed all the West End shows he could. Upon hearing an actor in a play sing poorly, he concluded that he could do much better and promptly returned to New York to wait on tables until fortune came his way.
It did not take long for him to win leading Broadway roles in "The Full Monty," "Rent" and "Hair," among others. His TV credits include a guest-starring role on "Brothers & Sisters" and a part as a Mormon Senate intern on "Big Love."
"Stuart in 'Big Love' and I had a lot of parallels," he said. "I grew up in a conservative religion and worked for Sen. Phil Gramm in college, so I knew what that world looked like.
"When I gave up medical school for the theater, my father complained that he spent $300,000 on my education to see me become a waiter," he said. "If I hadn't made that decision, I never would have played such interesting and diverse roles as Mark in 'Rent,' Bud Frump and Tommy Boatwright."