Twenty years ago, Tony Kushner’s play in two parts, Angels in America: A Gay Fantasy on National Themes won two Tony Awards and the Pulitzer Prize for Drama.
Twenty years. Wow.
And so it was with much anticipation that I went to last night’s performance of part one, Millenium Approaches at The Wilma Theater on Broad Street. I will see part two, Perestroika tonight. My next post will be a review of part two.
As I sat waiting for the show to begin I noticed that much of the audience surrounding me were young people, probably not yet born when this ground-breaking play premiered. As much as I looked forward to seeing The Wilma Theatre’s new production of both parts of this play, I wondered how it would hold up. Now I worried that all of its references would be completely lost on a generation too young to remember Ronald Reagan or the height of the AIDS epidemic, or what it was like to be in the closet. [Ed. note: Happy National Coming Out Day!] I wanted to like this production, and I was afraid the rest of the audience wouldn’t get it. (The Wilma’s dramaturge provides helpful notes and a timeline in the program and online here and here.)
During the first intermission, I asked the 20-year old student sitting next to me if she was familiar with the play. Without any further prompting, she told me she’d never heard of it before, and was here to see it for a gen-ed class, but she was loving it. It was the third play she’d seen for the class, and so far it was her favorite. I noticed her reviewing some study cards, and she said she had a biology mid-term in the morning, but didn’t want to miss the play. She admitted that she didn’t know very much about the historical references, but she was intrigued by them and wanted to learn more. We chatted briefly about the show before I let her get back to studying phylum and genera, but I was relieved that the young students in the audience around me were engaged and eager for more. I was glad, too for the opportunities the play affords people to learn about what it was like in the mid-1980’s to see friends, lovers and relatives sicken and die suddenly, or to understand the turmoil of the closeted gay characters. It must seem so quaint to them, that anybody cares whether they’re gay or not, I thought. How could we have known that twenty-plus-years later, AIDS would be a manageable condition, and that gay marriage would become recognized and legalized in many places across the nation?
There was no curtain, and there appeared to be no set. The stage was painted a stark white, and had the look of an empty industrial space. There was a circular staircase leading to a narrow balcony stage left. Other than that, there were a couple of folding chairs and standard six-foot folding tables on stage. It looked like a rehearsal space. Just before the play started, actors filed into the wings. Since there were no curtains, they were completely visible. I was concerned the show would look like a reading or workshop production. (If I see one mimed telephone call, I’m outta here! I thought.)
With this trepidation, I was prepared to hate a production of a play I loved. Thankfully, my fears were alleviated within the first few minutes, when I realized the caliber of talent on display before me.
Angels in America is an ambitious production to attempt. There are dozens of characters (each actor portrays multiple roles), quick-paced dialog, and many scenes and locations. It is a play that could easily be weighed down with too much scenery, which explains the minimal set design. In the right hands, the play flows from one scene to another, much like a film cuts from one scene to another. (And in fact, it was a challenge not to mentally augment the Wilma’s production with remembered scenes from the excellent HBO miniseries adaptation from 2003 which starred Meryl Streep, Emma Thompson, Al Pacino and Mary-Louise Parker. Jeffrey Wright repeated his Tony Award-winning role of Belize from the Broadway production.)
Set in New York City in 1985, the play opens with a monologue from an elderly bearded Rabbi from Brooklyn, eulogizing a woman he didn’t know. Even from the second row, it took me a minute to remember this was a young actress playing an old man, because her makeup and acting ability were so convincing. But even if it hadn’t been quite convincing enough to pass in real life, it’s a useful technique here to get the audience to suspend a certain amount of disbelief for a play that features so much fantasy.
The central characters are Prior Walter (a gay man dying of AIDS), and his boyfriend Louis. Louis is nervous, jewish, and works a menial job at the US Court of Appeals. The same court in Manhattan where Joe Pitt, (a deeply repressed Mormon lawyer from Salt Lake City) is a clerk. Joe is friends with Roy, the influential former Assistant US Attorney (based on the real-life Roy Cohn) that we soon find out is also a closeted gay man dying from AIDS, which he insists is liver cancer to protect his reputation. Roy is under threat of disbarment, and tries to place his friend Joe in a position of advantage. Harper is Joe’s neurotic, Valium-popping housewife that becomes so detached from her life that she can no longer tell her hallucinations apart from reality. She invents Mr. Lies, a travel agent who will whisk her away to imaginary places whenever she cannot deal with the pressures of her own life.
As the play progresses along with Prior’s illness, Louis finds himself unable to cope with the disease, and he moves out. His feelings of guilt at leaving his boyfriend to die alone fuel his angst throughout the play. As Prior’s disease brings him closer to death, he is visited by two ghosts and an angel, who proclaim him to be a prophet. Meanwhile, Roy has offered to secure a position in the Justice Department in Washington DC for Joe, but Joe is reluctant because his wife Harper doesn’t want to leave her apartment, much less Manhattan. Her mental stability deteriorates as she realizes that her husband is gay and worries about the hole in the ozone layer. Harper and Prior appear in each other’s dreams and hallucinations, even though they do not know each other. (In another display of brilliance, Kushner connects the two with a third character: Harper’s imaginary travel agent is played by the same actor that portrays Prior’s best friend, the nurse and former drag queen Belize.) As Roy’s “liver cancer” (actually it’s AIDS) progresses, he is visited by the ghost of Ethel Rosenberg, the communist spy the real-life Roy Cohn helped convict and execute during the McCarthy era. Joe’s pristine and carefully constructed facade of normalcy begins to crack, as he realizes his crazy wife is right… he is gay, and there’s nothing he can do about it. In a cathartic drunken moment, he calls his mother, Hannah, in Utah at four o’clock in the morning and comes out of the closet to her. Fearing he has lost his moral compass, Hannah sells her house (in a very funny scene with her friend and real-estate agent) and moves to New York to provide some stability for him and his wife, learning a few things about herself along the way.
In the final scene of part one, the angel whose arrival Prior was warned about in his visions finally arrives, terrifying him. She is the Angel of America, the “inconceivably powerful Celestial Apparatchik/Bureaucrat-Angel and Continental Principality” as described by Tony Kushner in the script. Part two, Perestroika, proceeds forward from the wreckage caused by her traumatic arrival. Inspired by the Angel of Waters statue at Bethesda Fountain in Central Park, she is armored and has beautiful steel wings. She is played by the same actress that is Prior’s nurse in the hospital.
Angels in America: Millenium Approaches is all about being on the threshold of something terrifying. Kushner describes it as a membrane… one that is broken at the angel’s arrival at the end of part one. It was a feeling that I remember well from the late 1980’s and throughout the 90’s as the third millennium was approaching. The conservative right-wing was gaining in strength and popularity. Scientists were beginning to notice declines in the environment. Predictions that the world would end abounded, and some prepared for the Apocalypse. It seemed that the dawning of the new age wouldn’t be quite as idyllic as the hippies predicted in the 60’s. Many thought civilization would grind to a halt due to a computer glitch on Jan. 1st, 2000. And during all of this, we watched and waited and worried for our friends, relatives and lovers dying horrible deaths due to a disease nobody understood or could seem to do anything about. It was terrifying to be a powerless gay man in those times.
The Wilma Theater’s production (directed by Blanka Zizka) is a joy to see. Perfectly cast, and with just the right amount of stagecraft, (Kushner notes in his script that the Angels suspension wires should be visible) it is a deft and sensitive staging of what is now an important period piece of the late twentieth century.
Angels in America: A Gay Fantasia on National Themes, by Tony Kushner at the Wilma Theater
September 12, 2012 – October 21, 2012. www.wilmatheater.org