In current popular culture, the word “epic”” has proven to be overused in a way that has leeched some of the power and awe that it would involve. However, for a play like ANGELS IN AMERICA: A GAY FANTASIA ON NATIONAL THEMES there is no other world that qualifies for this powerful and riveting show playing at the Cygnet Theatre through April 20th.
Like the epic Greek poems of old, this show is a long but detailed story of events unique to a certain era of a civilization; in this case it is the 1985 Regan era. This year is the 25th anniversary of Tony Kushner‘s Pulitzer Prize-winning drama made up of two parts uses intimate, personal stores that at first seem unrelated to weave a deeply complex and expansive story that explores the AIDS crisis, religion, politics, truth, vulnerability, power, and personal growth.
PART ONE: THE MILLLENNIUM APPROACHES introduces the audience to the cast of characters whose lives are about to profoundly change.
Joe Pitt (Connor Sullivan) is a young, Mormon lawyer, who is married to his wife Harper (Rachael VanWormer). Neither one is happy in their marriage, but both are trying to life their lives as best they can as their religion dictates. Harper has become a shrill, Valium addicted shut in and Joe disappears on long walks for hours at a time with no word to his wife. It is when Joe’s boss Roy Cohn (James Newcomb) offers Joe a new job that the cracks in their marriage quickly turn into canyons.
Prior (Alex Bodine) is diagnosed with AIDS and none of his humor can prevent what seems the inevitable conclusion to the “‘gay cancer.” This news causes his already anxious lover Louis (Wil Bethmann) to spin into a new level of overthinking and worry that has him looking for an escape valve to prevent having to witness to this decline.
Belize (Kevane La’Marr Coleman) is a nurse and friend of Prior’s who offers up both straightforward advice with his comforting bedside manner as he helps Prior and Louis navigate the progression of the disease as their relationship starts to decline.
When the sexually conflicted Joe meets the emotionally conflicted Louis, their attraction offers each other an escape from the harsh truths they don’t want to face about themselves. As Joe tries to come to terms with his actions he confesses his sexuality to his mother Hannah (Rosina Reynolds) who drops everything and moves to New York from Utah to help everyone back on the right pat, while Harper takes a hallucinated trip to Antarctica to try to process her feelings of isolation.
As the AIDS epidemic continues to blossom, it finds that even someone as powerful as Roy Cohn doesn’t have enough connections to prevent him from becoming one of the afflicted.
PART TWO: PERESTROIKA takes the fantasy from act one and doubles down as it plays up the phantasmagorical as it plays with dreams, reality, imagination, and the power of choice.
Yes, this is emotionally weighty fare, but that doesn’t mean it can’t also be funny. This tragi-comedy that uses humor to keep everything sharp, moving, and makes everything all the more poignant for it. After all, is there any other way to process visits from long dead ancestors, an Angel or the heraldic voice from heaven (both Debra Wanger) life than with dose of humor?
Kushner’s play is by no means an easy one to interpret or stage; it does have angels crashing through ceilings, diorama dummies that come to life, and a fantastical journey through Antarctica after all. It is the mixture of this ordinary and the extraordinary as told by this exceptional cast under the detailed direction of Sean Murray that creates a heartrending and dynamic piece that is impossible to resist.
Bodine as Prior and Newsom as Cohn both offer intelligent and intensely impactful performances. Bethmann makes an agitated character whose actions seems hard to process vulnerable and relatable. Sullivan is emotionally raw as Joe, while Vanwormer as Rachel brings a wonderful manic vulnerability.
Coleman is a fantastic Belize, with the right balance of sass and sympathy, Reynolds shines as both Mother Hannah and Ethel Rosenberg , while Wanger’s Angel is a powerful specter that brings many questions and seemingly impossible answer to how to stop all of this madness.
Both an intimate and epic tale that covers difficult themes, this production is exquisitely easy to watch. All in total the two parts clock in at seven hours including multiple intermissions during each part.
ANGELS shows humanity for the beautiful, flawed mess that it was and always will be. So much potential and so many choices as everyone wrestles for authenticity and truth in a world that avoids both for political and personal gain.
ANGELS IN AMERICA: A GAY FANTASIA ON NATIONAL THEMES is playing in rotating repertory performance, with select dates with both performed on the same day through April 20th. This play has sexual situations, nudity, and adult language. Please go to www.cygnetthetre.com for ticket information and showtimes which are earlier than normal due to the length of each performance.
Picture credit: Daren Scott