Christopher Fidram was 20 years old when the Oakland Center for the Arts first staged ''The Normal Heart'' in 1987. He called being cast in that production a ''life changing'' experience.
''It showed me what was possible, what stories could be done in a community theater setting,'' Fidram said. ''I hadn't opened myself up to that kind of the theater - intimate and personal and real.''
He is the only actor returning for the production that opens Friday to start the theater's 2012-13 season.
Special to the Tribune Chronicle
The cast of ‘‘The Normal Heart features, top from left, James McClellan, Joe Marshall and John Cox; middle, Molly Galano, Jason Green, Chuck Kettering and Matthew Schomer; and bottom, Paul Sauline, Craig Conrad and Christopher Fidram.
''The Normal Heart,'' written by gay activist Larry Kramer, was the first drama staged by the Oakland, a Youngstown community theater founded by Alexandra Vansuch. It was presented locally only two years after its Off-Broadway debut, and its story - the early days in the battle to raise awareness in the fight against HIV/AIDS - largely was unknown. AIDS no longer is a mystery illness, but the impact of ''The Normal Heart'' hasn't diminished. A 2011 Broadway production won three Tony Awards, including Best Revival of a Play.
The Oakland is taking a different approach with its own ''revival'' of ''The Normal Heart.'' Vansuch directed the original production and was slated to direct this time. When she had to drop out, the cast decided not to replace her. While the cast interviews on the Oakland website ask the actors what it's like working on a show without a director, Fidram said a more accurate characterization is that ''The Normal Heart'' has 10 directors.
''That's what it is,'' he said. ''We're all taking part, we're all watching each other, offering critiques, offering comments. It feels so much more like a project than a play ... Everyone in the cast just became more involved and committed to this. We've spent rehearsals crying together, just defining who these people are. It has such a personal feel to it.''
WHAT: ''The Normal Heart''
WHEN: 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday through Oct. 6.
WHERE: Oakland Center for the Arts, 220 W. Boardman St., Youngstown
HOW MUCH: $15 adults, $12 senior citizens and $10 students. For reservations or more information, call 330-746-0404.
THE SEASON: ''The Normal Heart'' is the first of six shows in the Oakland's 2012-13 season. Other productions include:
Nov. 2-17 ''Spring Awakening,'' winner of eight Tony Awards, including Best Musical.
Feb. 22-March 9 ''Hail to the Chef,'' a farce written by Boardman native Michael Dempsey.
April 5-20 ''Prelude to a Kiss,'' a romance/fantasy by Craig Lucas.
May 10-25 ''The Children's Hour,'' a drama by Lillian Hellman.
July 26-Aug. 10 The musical ''Hair.''
Season tickets are available for a limited time at a buy-three-shows/get-three-shows-free rate. Season tickets are $45 for adults, $36 for senior citizens and $30 for students.
Fidram plays Ned Weeks, the alter ego of the playwright, an activist who fights to raise awareness in the gay community about this unknown disease that seems to be preying on gay men while at the same time trying to get the mainstream media, the government and health organizations to pay attention.
The rest of the cast features Craig Conrad, John Cox, Molly Galano, Jason Green, Chuck Kettering, Joe Marshall, James McClellan, Paul Sauline and Matthew Schomer.
Casting the show in 2012 was much easier than it was in 1987. Fidram claims the only reason he was cast in the original production is that some actors were hesitant to play the openly gay characters.
''I started to ask around,'' Fidram said. ''I contacted Jim McClellan and Molly Galano, and everyone really wanted to do this play. It's not like I?cast a bunch of my friends. Half (of the cast) I'd never worked with before. I'd seen them in things before and they were right for the roles.
''Everyone said yes. It really shows how times have changed. We have a predominantly straight cast that doesn't have any hangups about playing gay characters.''
The play itself also resonates in different ways today.
''When it came out 25 years ago, it was a play with an urgent message and we were just terrified,'' Fidram said. ''From the time we did the play until now, you've seen so many changes. We have a generation, at least one, grow up not knowing any different.
''In some ways it's funnier, it's more romantic and it's also very unbelievable in some parts. You hear how this group is trying to make people aware of this epidemic and how they are being ignored and avoided. It made more sense 25 years ago. Now you wonder how could people have just done this?''