Patrick Breen, Patricia Wettig, Molly Smith in D.C.

Arena Stage
Arena Stage Artistic Director Molly Smith and David Shiffrin, chairman of the theater company's board. Photographer: Stephanie Green/Bloomberg

Neon glow sticks, graffiti and Madonna hits conspired to turn the Arena Stage’s Mead Center for American Theater into a 1980s dance club last night.

The time traveling was in honor of Arena’s current run of “The Normal Heart,” the Tony Award-winning play by Larry Kramer about the early days of the HIV virus.

The play is set between 1981 and 1984 when the virus was an unknown killer. Many of the evening’s guests said they knew exactly what that time was like.

One of them was Arena’s artistic director, Molly Smith, who said she saw the play during its original off-Broadway run 25 years ago, and then again during its Broadway revival last year.

“It blew the back of my mind off,” Smith said at a reception in a light-filled library named in her honor, where swordfish appetizers and Honest Tea vodka cocktails were served.

Proceeds from last night’s show were split evenly between Arena Stage and the Washington AIDS Partnership, a local organization that awards more than $1 million annually in grants to fight AIDS through education and prevention.

Smith said she felt compelled to bring the play to Washington, especially during this week’s 19th International AIDS Conference, being held in the nation’s capital for the first time in more than 20 years.

Mats Ahnlund and Anouk Rey, both from the International AIDS Society, were among the guests. They were looking to get a break from the conference, which they said has more than 23,000 participants this year.

AIDS Quilt

Guests noticed the pieces of the AIDS Memorial Quilt hanging in the theater while “The Normal Heart” runs through July 29. Pieces also are on display on the National Mall and at more than 50 other locations throughout the city through July 25.

During intermission, Italian Ambassador Claudio Bisogniero and his wife, Laura, joined other VIPs backstage for a champagne toast.

Guests Scott Richter and Nabil Mousa said they came from Atlanta to see the quilt and attend the benefit. Judy Lynn Prince, a trustee of Arena Stage, and her fiance, Bob Haiman, said they have seen the play before, but wanted to see it again during the historic week.

After the play’s conclusion, spirits got a lift from a gospel quartet on the center’s second level, their voices echoing off the walls as guests headed upstairs to the dance party.

‘Don’t Talk’

Cast members Patrick Breen and Patricia Wettig joined guests on the dance floor.

“I just don’t talk,” Breen said to explain how he keeps his voice. His part of a young AIDS activist requires some of the loudest monologues of the play.

The food was right off a New York oceanside boardwalk: mini-hot dogs, meatball sandwiches, giant pretzels and a large assortment of brownies.

Guests wore the glow sticks as makeshift necklaces and headbands.

(Stephanie Green is a writer and photographer for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. Any opinions expressed are her own.)

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