'Angels' a stunning look at AIDS-era America By Jane Holahan, Staff Writer firstname.lastname@example.org
Tony Kushner's "Angels in America: A Gay Fantasia on National Themes" is a rare play: Serious but funny, specific but universal and about a very different time and place in America, but not one bit dated.
In fact, the first part of the two-part play, "Millennium Approaches," which opened Thursday at Ephrata Performing Arts Center, sparkles with wit, freshness and vibrancy.
I could tell five minutes into "Millennium Approaches" that we were in for a wild ride as we looked at 1980s America, in the midst of the AIDS crisis and the Reagan Revolution.
I was not disappointed. The cast of eight actors under the direction of Ed Fernandez, with assistance from Pat Kautter, is masterful.
Don't stay away from "Angels" because it sounds like a downer. It's not.
Yes, it's about AIDS. Yes, it's for mature audiences. Yes, it uses a truck-load of profanity. And yes, it explores some pretty heavy themes about love, hypocrisy, fear and faith.
And yes, the play is three hours long.
But you will laugh, you will think and you will feel for the characters on stage. And the time will fly by. It sure did for me.
What an exhilarating combination it all is.
While the ambitions of "Millennium Approaches" are sprawling and about nothing less than the great experiment that is America, the play itself is not. Kushner never loses sight of his characters and the production is quite intimate. (It was the same gift he, as screenwriter, brought to the film "Lincoln.")
Kudos to the production team that includes set designer Mike Rhoads, lighting designer Jeff Cusano and costumer Danae McQueen.
And Fernandez and Kautter have staged the play brilliantly, moving the numerous scenes effectively.
It is the mid-1980s in New York City. Prior (Daniel Greene) is a young man dying of AIDS. His lover, Louis (Bob Breen) can't handle the realities of his illness and the responsibility of caring for him.
Louis is a big talker about justice and love and liberalism, but fails his ideals by abandoning Prior.
Meanwhile, Joe Pitt (Andrew Kindig) has been offered a cushy Washington job through his mentor, Roy Cohn (Richard Bradbury), the same Roy Cohn who gained fame during the McCarthy hearings of the 1950s.
Joe and his wife, Harper (Amy Carter) are Mormons and Joe is a by-the-book conservative.
He is also a closeted gay man who is just beginning to come to the realization that he can't change himself, no matter how hard he tries. He tells his wife, "I pray for God to crush me into little pieces and start over."
Harper has always known on some level that her husband is gay and it has turned her into a Valium addict who hallucinates and is terrified of the thinning ozone layer and the end of the world.
Meanwhile, the brash and belligerent Roy Cohn is dying of AIDS but refuses to admit it and claims he's got liver cancer. In Cohn's mind, homosexuals are powerless and he is a powerful man, thus not a homosexual.
Belize (Adam Newborn) is Prior's best friend, a nurse and an ex-drag queen. He refutes Louis's self-serving politics and, in some ways, serves as a moral compass.
Newborn also plays Harper's hallucination, Mr. Lies, a travel agent who helps her stay in denial.
The entire cast plays other roles, particularly Kristie Ohlinger and Elizabeth Pattey.
Ohlinger is the angel who begins talking to Prior in the hospital, a very funny homeless woman and the nurse who takes care of Prior.
Pattey really goes to town in a number of roles, including the old rabbi who speaks to the audience at the beginning as she officiates over the funeral of Louis' grandmother, warning against assimilation.
Among her other roles are a doctor who tries to convince Cohn he is gay and has AIDS and Joe's mother, Hannah, who comes to New York from Salt Lake City after Joe drunkenly tells her over the phone that he is gay.
Each of Pattey's roles is rich and funny.
But then, there's not a weak link in this cast.
Perhaps Greene has the most difficult role as the suffering Prior, who loses everything and is having his own hallucinations, including a demanding angel who appears before him, making him into a prophet.
That comes in "Perestroika," the second part of "Angels," which opens March 28.
Kushner and his play clearly come from a liberal perspective that abhors the conservative mindset of the Reagan era.
But "Millennium" is not that simple minded.
Kushner is asking what happens to a society that is rotting from the core because it is afraid to change.
Where will we go?
I look forward to finding out in part two.
"Angels in America: Millennium Approaches" runs through March 16. Call 733-7966 for tickets. n