Recent reports of the death of Angels in America’s relevance are greatly exaggerated. If anything, the recession of the AIDS crisis in America (or, at least, in the mainstream American consciousness) and the gay marriage victory allow Tony Kushner’s masterwork to leap out of its epoch and become truly timeless. As with the English monarchial details in many of the great works of Shakespeare, the specificities of Angels’ 1980s Reagan-era setting only serve to clarify what truly changes and what does not in society and human nature. And, as this production’s dramaturg, Gabrielle Hoyt, points out in the program notes: Angels is all about change.
In partnership, Round House Theatre and Olney Theatre Center have thrown their weight behind this play. Presented at Round House’s Bethesda space, the first part, Millennium Approaches, is directed by Olney’s artistic director Jason Loewith, and the upcoming second part by Round House’s Ryan Rilette.
It is something of a miracle that the onstage result of this titanic collaboration is so straightforward, passionate, and focused. The lovely paneled set by James Krozner neatly frames and looks down over the space, allowing the actors a largely bare stage (just a few basic tables and beds rolled on and off) on which to exercise the story.
That story, so achingly human and relatable, burns brightly in the performances of the ensemble – seven of DC’s best (and one out-of-towner) bringing their full powers to bear on these complex, monumental characters. The three main plot threads spool out with equal force, dispersed through time, space, and reality in Kushner’s ever-daring script but generally centered in New York City, 1985. It’s all kept accessible and easy to follow under Loewith’s steady hand.
There’s Prior Walter, recently diagnosed with AIDS, raw like an open nerve and dripping with desperate wit in Tom Story’s portrayal, as he struggles both to keep his lover, Louis Ironson (Jonathan Bock), at his side and to comprehend the prophetic omens of the Angel (Dawn Ursula). AIDS may no longer be the death sentence that it was 30 years ago, but those specific politics are immaterial; the patterns are eternal. And not just those of imperfect love and the horrors of disease, but of politics’ influences on our most intimate moments, and the promises of revelation from those society has shunted to the fringes.
Then we’ve got the Mormon couple Harper and Joe Pitt (Kimberly Gilbert and Thomas Keegan), she dependent on Valium-induced hallunications to deal with Joe’s secret gnawing at their marriage. Gilbert manages to find the emotional core in every knot of Harper’s verbal ramblings, making it easy to see how her timely concerns about the ozone layer are part of an evergreen pattern of human-level problems connecting to global-level ones. Keegan, meanwhile, makes his slow journey of self-recognition alternately humorous and painfully easy to follow, letting us see every scale of his armor peel off.
And of course, there’s Roy Cohn, the McCarthy protegee, conservative power broker, bulldog lawyer, and open-secret gay man also dying of AIDS. He was, in reality, a mentor to Donald Trump, but in Kushner’s vision, he is a mentor and father figure to Joe. Cohn, that fascinating hypocrite, is ripped wide open in Mitchell Hébert’s definitive performance. We cannot extricate his pain at living gay in a straight man’s world from his viciousness in pursuing political goals, from his devotion to setting up Joe for a better life, from his shame, from his hope, from his cynicism, from his joie de vivre, from his loathing.
Part I only scratches the surface of Kushner’s deep and churning plot – in an ideal world, the two parts would always be presented back-to-back. My theatergoing partner, a novice to Angels in America, barely noticed the three-and-a-half hour runtime. To see this part without seeing Perestroika – or to present just this first part by itself, as other theatre companies have done in the past! – is like putting food in your mouth without eating it.
It will be a treat to see Story tackle the broader range of material that Prior Walter gets in Part II, given how unrestrainedly he devotes himself to Prior’s fear and need in this half, as well as to see the larger roles for Joe’s mother Hannah (Sarah Marshall, just beginning to hint at her character’s hardened spirit), the Angel (Ursula), and deeply insightful drag queen/nurse extraordinaire Belize (Jon Hudson Odom).
Some have said that this is a play of ideas, not people, but Loewith’s production utterly destroys that notion. The ideas – such as in Louis’ famous tirade about democracy and race in America and Europe, delivered with capricious intellect by Bock to Odom’s impressively incredulous Belize – serve to inform the characters first, and the characters are what sticks with us.
Angels in America Part 1: Millennium Approaches
closes October 23, 2016
Details and tickets
They fight, they love, they adapt or fail to adapt themselves to the world they live in, and they believe utterly that they are facing the end of the world. In a meeting with Joe, Martin Heller, a DC colleague of Cohn’s (played by Gilbert in one of the script’s many doublings), says of the Reagan era, “It’s really the end of liberalism.” This was a fright line, not a laugh line, when Kushner originally wrote it, a mere year before Bill Clinton’s election.
But that line – and others like it – are not indicators of a dated perspective. The world will always be ending, and different sets of people will always be finding themselves in or out of power, in or out of love, in or out of health. As Angels in America surges forward into its adolescence and beyond, varying lines and details like that will come in and out of timeliness, but that very instability points to the underlying truth – that change is inevitable, that it is painful, and that lovers, friends, and believers will fight for and against it, successfully or not. As Cohn’s own mentee runs for President in 2016, there are no better lessons to learn than those of our powerlessness in the face of certain changes – and where we do have power.
And those lessons, so of-the-now, are unfinished, and unknowable, until we complete our journey with these characters and see how Part II lives on stage, later this month.
Angels in America, Part I: Millennium Approaches by Tony Kushner . Directed by Jason Loewith . Featuring Jonathan Bock, Kimberly Gilbert, Mitchell Hébert, Thomas Keegan, Sarah Marshall, Jon Hudson Odom, Tom Story, Dawn Ursula . Scenic Designer: James Kronzer . Projection Designer: Clint Allen . Costume Designer: Ivania Stack . Assoc. Costume Designer/Crafts Artisan: Seth Gilbert . Lighting Designer: York Kennedy . Sound Designer: Joshua Horvath . Props Master: Kasey Hendricks . Dialect Coach: Zach Campion . Fight Choreographer: Casey Kaleba . Dramaturg: Gabrielle Hoyt . Assistant Director: Philip Kershaw . Flying Effects: D2 Flying Effects. Stage Managers: Marne Anderson, John Keith Hall, Che Wernsman . Produced by Round House Theatre and Olney Theatre Center . Reviewed by Brett Steven Abelman.