When a close friend died from AIDS, Tony Kushner dreamed about an angel “crashing through someone’s bedroom ceiling.” It wasn’t an archangel — a Gabriel or a Michael — or a chubby Disney cherub plucking a golden lyre. It became, in his two-part epic, Angels in America, a confused creature. Instead of singing “glory to the newborn king,” the angel suffers from monumental anxiety. She’s so afraid of the future she wants to slam history into reverse: stop progress; stop people mingling and migrating. We don’t see the future, she says, can’t see the atrocities, the myriad unthinkables. If we did, surely we’d want to turn back or desist completely.
The Angel, a “cosmic reactionary” who represents the Continental Principality of America, chooses an unlikely subject for her prophet. Prior Walter has AIDS. He’s just a dying speck in the universe but somehow finds within himself resources he never imagined — and the strength to wrestle an angel.
Harper Pitt says the world’s immune system has the equivalent of AIDS. She’s an agoraphobic “Jack Mormon” addicted to Valium. But she isn’t crazy. People just think so because her apocalypse has no spiritual dimension. It’s 1985. There’s a hole in the ozone, and there’s nothing angelic about a blue halo over Antarctica. Like a modern Cassandra, Harper tells the truth to deaf ears. Now her dreams talk back to her.
Louis Ironson was Prior’s lover. Comfortable with theorizing and political distinctions, Louis balks when real life turns nightmarish. Having to care for Prior tests Louis’s tolerance, even his love, and breaks him down. Louis abandons Prior. As he wanders through a moral wilderness, Louis must wrestle with angels and demons.
Kushner “stole” the form of Angels, he says, from Robert Altman’s Nashville. As in Altman’s “open films,” seemingly random scenes slowly intermingle: surfaces layer into depths. In Kushner’s Gay Fantasia on National Themes, people as disparate as Mormons in Utah and ex–drag queens in Brooklyn make unlikely connections. They find common ground beneath the labels that kept them apart.
At one point, Prior introduces Hannah to a nurse by saying, “This is my ex-lover’s lover’s Mormon mother.” That links at least four degrees of separation.
But no connection is facile, and not everyone does. Roy Cohn, whom someone calls a latter-day “Saint of the Right,” doesn’t. The power-horny McCarthyite rejects labels, even redefines words (though dying of AIDS, he prefers to call it “liver cancer” to avoid revealing his homosexuality). Though Cohn refuses to connect, the play does it for him. In one of the most moving scenes, Ethel Rosenberg — whom Cohn was instrumental in having executed — says the Kaddish (a Jewish prayer, among other things, of mourning) for him. Change, the play suggests often, must include forgiveness. The ritual surrounds Cohn, one of America’s most evil thugs, with a kind of forgiving. In an interview, Kushner said, “I wouldn’t be in theater if I didn’t believe...that certain forms of ritual can transform one’s consciousness.” In another interview, he said, “If advertising works, and it does, then so does art, and in the same way.”
Angels has two parts, Millennium Approaches and Perestroika. Each runs over three hours. The San Diego Theater Critics Circle gave Ion Theatre its annual Producing Award in 2010 for staging intimate, courageous dramas in its small space. Given the company’s resources, Angels is more than a stretch. It’s a leap of faith.
That lands on solid ground. The opening day/night (both parts ran together) had some minor sound problems — the offstage angel’s voice could have been louder — and there were a few bland sections. But codirected by Glenn Paris and Claudio Raygoza, the truly devoted cast sustained the plays’ majestic sweep throughout.
The production boasts the Johns — Noel Award winners Jessica John and Karson St. John — excelling in key roles. Jessica John makes Harper a fragile membrane, hounded by atrocities both global and personal. And when the time comes for the Angel to appear, Karson St. John floats down in a gleaming-white, flowing robe (costumes by Jessica John). While swimming in the air, she’s at once funny and frightening. Here, after all, is one scary proposition: an inferior superior!
Those who have seen Ron Liebman play Cohn as a nine-dimensional spoiled brat must feel for Jesse MacKinnon (Kushner worried that his audiences were too sympathetic to Cohn when he died; more likely they were sad because Liebman was done for the night). MacKinnon tones down Cohn’s early scenes — a bit more than necessary — but his performance in Perestroika is first-rate. Cohn will not go gentle into that good night.
Kyle Sorrell, a relatively new face, excels as Prior. His final speech is the opposite of Prospero’s “Our revels now are ended.” Prior says the work has just begun. Sorrell’s excellent performance builds to that final authority.
Jason Heil (Joe Pitt), Jason Maddy (Ironson), and Catalina Maynard (in amazingly diverse roles) make major contributions.
I’m partial to one of Ironson’s late observations. In the Age of TMI (“too much information”) — I mean, perish the thought that people should be informed! — Ironson offers an alternative. He quotes his grandmother, who said, “go know.”
Kevane La’Marr Coleman plays Belize, the African-American former drag queen. He’s less flamboyant than other interpreters. But the choice, building the character more from within, works throughout. Especially when Belize fires from the hip: “The white cracker who wrote the national anthem knew what he was doing. He set the word ‘free’ to a note so high nobody can reach it. That was deliberate. Nothing on Earth sounds less like freedom to me.” ■
- Angels in America, Millennium Approaches, and Perestroika, by Tony Kushner
- Lyceum Theatre, 79 Horton Plaza, downtown
- Directed by Glenn Paris and Claudio Raygoza: cast: Kevane La’Marr Coleman, Jason Heil, Jessica John Gercke, Jesse MacKinnon, Jason Maddy, Catalina Maynard, Karson St.John, Kyle Sorrell; scenic design/projections, Raygoza, costumes, Jessica John Gercke, lighting, Karin Filijan, sound, Melanie Chen
- Playing through December 11; for days and times of Parts I and II, call 619-544-1000