Promising drugs were in the pipeline, but few had access to medical trials and the waits were long. Angels in America: A Gay Fantasia examines that era over seven hours through a symphony of beautiful words.
“Angels” is performed in two parts, “Millennium Approaches” and “Perestroika.” It is rare that regional theatres essay both, but Stray Dog (which performed Part I in 2004) is now bringing us the whole experience in repertory on successive weekends, and after having seen the first last night, I think it’s safe to say that this is a special event on many levels. Also, and sad to say, despite the progress in the treatment of the illness, the sick state of political discourse in the United States today makes the work relevant again, with just the slightest shift of emphasis. It is a mark of Kushner’s achievement that, like Shakespeare, his work is malleable as to where the accent marks are placed.
Boiled down to its essence, the story is simple: Two troubled couples are on parallel tracks and occasionally their stories intersect. Prior Walter (Ben Watts) is diagnosed with AIDS, and his partner, Louis Ironson (Aaron Paul Gotzon) doesn’t think he can deal with terminal illness and wants to leave. Joe Pitt (Stephen Peirick) is a young Reaganite and, not incidentally, a Mormon. He’s a lawyer who believes he’s wasting his time in his New York job. No less than Roy Cohn (David Wassilak) offers him a big job in Washington D.C. working for the Justice Department, which Joe wants to take, but he feels held back by his agoraphobic, Valium-addled wife, Harper (Rachel Hanks). What happens during these two journeys, however, what lies beneath, is where the action and impact of “Angels” arises. Ben Watts is impeccable as Prior, and if there is a lead role, it is his. He is fragile (or at least he thinks he is).
The play opens in 1985 with an elderly male rabbi (Laura Kyro) presiding over the funeral of Sarah Ironson, Louis’s grandmother. The patriarch speaks of Sarah as a woman who came to America and raised her large family with all the advantages of the New World, but she carried the old one on her back all her life. Her kind is dying out now. Louis, whose behavior does not befit his last name, confides to Prior that he feels guilty that he ignored his institutionalized grandmother in the last years of her life. For his part, Prior offers cold comfort by showing Louis his first Kaposi’s sarcoma, a purplish skin discoloration he calls “the mark of Cain,” for it is indicative of AIDS.
Meanwhile, Joe meets Louis, a clerk, who is crying in the washroom. During their talk, Louis casually mentions Joe is gay. Joe denies it, but it is true. The two couples start to merge with this meeting and culminate in Harper and Prior colliding in a hallucination (hers) and dream (his), which Prior reveals is the “threshold of understanding.” Among other revelations, he tells her that Joe is gay and they confess their troubles to each other. In another dream sequence, Harper also conjures up “Mr. Lies” (Greg Fenner) an imaginary travel agent through whom she hopes to escape her apartment and her life with a man who cannot love her. She fantasizes about snow-filled Antarctica and is able to spend a glorious hallucination there later.
Cohn himself is a closet case, and when his diagnosis of AIDS is given, he insists it is liver cancer, that he cannot have a homosexual disease because he is NOT a homosexual. A heterosexual who has sex with men, sure, but not a “powerless” homosexual. Joe continues to dither, Louis remains freaked out, Prior takes comfort in his ex-lover Belize (Fenner) a once (and possibly current) drag queen/registered nurse who is now his best friend, and the philosophical musings begin to fly. Prior, whose evocative name conjures up his centuries of ancestors and his place as the chosen prophet called “before” the re-creation of creation, takes comfort in Belize’s company and that of Emily (Alverson) his down-to-earth nurse.
It’s important to note first that “Angels” is a comedy. I know it doesn’t sound very funny, but it is hilarious on some levels, especially the scenes with Roy Cohn, whom Wassilak plays with relish, at times seeming almost to channel Alan Alda. It’s a bravura performance, as is Sarajane Alverson’s as the titular “Angel,” the nurse (mentioned above), Sister Ella Chapter (a real estate agent in Salt Lake who is Joe’s mother’s best friend), and the “woman in the South Bronx” (my favorite of her roles). She will play a couple of others in Part II. This is another of Kushner’s choices: Only eight actors are to be used and all play multiple parts, the fewest being two (Watts) and the most, seven (Alverson and the also impressive Kyro). They are to play across gender and racial lines to show, in Kushner’s mind, the flexibility of artificially imposed restrictions on certain behaviors being definitive of a particular group. Also, the connections are not arbitrary, as is seen most clearly in the doubling of the Angel and the nurse (the “angel of mercy”).
The big issues are thrown at us in a number of creative ways, almost always leavened with humor. When we first meet Harper, she is musing on the holes in the ozone layer and how she believes that angels are holding hands in a circle to protect earth from destroying itself by creating and maintaining these openings, thus fusing science and religion. Of course, she’s crazy, but at least she has a cosmology. Louis bores the bejesus out of Belize through a politically charged monologue driven by Hegelian ontology to try to reconcile Reaganite Republicanism (Louis is a liberal) with the existence of good in the world. He believes in joy, but Prior’s illness doesn’t fit in that schematic. This scene where Gotzon seems to truly begin to inhabit Louis. Opposites attract these people.
Symbols abound, dominated by the color white—Harper’s snow, Prior’s angel. Both feel sullied, frightened and alone, and the clean smell of snow (also referenced by Belize and Louis) is a purifying agent, as is its counter-agent, fire. Red, the color of blood, Satan, and communists is liberally employed. Illness and other pathologies are used as metaphor; the dissection of morality and its lack is played through the “good” characters (Prior, Harper) and the very bad Roy Cohn, whose proudest achievement in life, he says, was getting Ethel Rosenberg the electric chair instead of life in prison. It’s because he hates traitors and communists, he claims, but really it’s just because he hates period. (And Ethel [Kyro] will come back to haunt him.) Prior gradually becomes more and more paranoid, but not in a Roy Cohn kind of way. He feels as he does because he constantly hears a “voice” telling him to “Prepare the way. Glory to.” (We don’t know what the last word should be yet.) The community is falling apart and destruction must precede reconstitution and redemption.
Bell’s direction is meticulous, as always. He’s quietly gone about becoming one of the best and most fearless directors in St. Louis. Still, the scene changes take a little too long, even using Kushner’s own dicta in the script about “no blackouts” (which there are) and actors moving scenery themselves (which they do). I’m not sure if anything can be done about that problem though because the Abbey’s space is a bit awkward which leads me to praise those responsible for the set we do see. The suggestion of Prior’s ancestral home (complete, at a couple of points with actual spectral ancestors—Peirick and Wassilak—discussing the plagues of their own times) is an abstract wonder. The sound is more than acceptable in the Abbey now, and the climactic scene is breathtaking. Justin Been is the magic man: scenic designer (beautifully enhanced by Tyler Duenow’s lighting bag of tricks), audio and projection designer, sound and lighting operator, stage manager, and even head of the crew that built the set. Alexandra Scibetta Quigley’s costumes don’t call attention to themselves but are quite right.
It’s impossible to sum up a three-plus hour, densely packed play in a review that’s a readable length, so when you see it, and you should, you’ll pick up the rest. It demands your attention, but it also richly rewards it. Kushner achieves a Brechtian-fueled marriage of art and politics that is enlightening but not preachy. Unless you’re seeing Miller, O’Neill or Williams being performed, you’re unlikely to find more complex, elegantly expressed ideas anywhere else in American drama. Kushner won the Pulitizer Prize and two Tony Awards for this achievement, and it would have been wrong if he hadn’t. Don’t let the length scare you off because there are two intermissions, lots of good food and drink available, and you must wait for the Angel cause she arrives locked and loaded. “Glory to” Stray Dog Theatre for this awesome (in the conventional sense of the word) production.
It also should be noted that while HIV/AIDS is now considered generally treatable, although still not curable, among privileged classes, it is still a scourge of poverty-stricken populations here and around the world.