BWW Reviews: ANGELS IN AMERICA: PERESTROIKA at EPAC - The Great Work Concludes
It may be, as is popularly said, one of America's great theatrical masterpieces, but Tony Kushner's ANGELS IN AMERICA Part 2, PERESTROIKA, is on the one hand desperately interesting to anyone who wants the resolution to Part 1, MILLENNIUM APPROACHES, but on the other hand almost impenetrable to anyone who hasn't seen the first play. It's not like a cheesy two-part television season ender/opener, where everything you need to know about the last episode can be flashed on the screen in ten seconds (making one wonder, why did you watch the entire first show if ten seconds explains that entire hour you spent watching?). In a feat of epic proportions, Ephrata Performing Arts Center and its artistic director, Edward Fernandez, have put PERESTROIKA on stage only two weeks after staging MILLENNIUM APPROACHES, leaving Part 1 firmly in mind when watching Part 2 - most theatres run PERESTROIKA the following season. But if you skipped Part 1 and are coming now because your friends told you how fabulous Part 1 was, expect to need your Cliff Notes.
The least you need to know: Prior Walter (Daniel Greene, who is remarkable) is dying of AIDS, but when last we saw him, an angel (Kristie Ohlinger) with a wing span that should wreck the room, had announced that he is the prophet of a new era. His ex-lover, Louis (Bob Breen) has run off with Mormon lawyer Joe Pitt (Andrew Kindig), who is married to Harper (a very fine Amy Carter), who is having a nervous breakdown and is convinced she is in Antarctica. With an Eskimo, indicating the depth of her delusion, as she's able to discuss the fact that her Eskimo doesn't belong in that part of the world. To an imaginary travel agent. Joe's mother, Hannah (a terrific Elizabeth Pattey, once again playing multiple roles fabulously in Part 2) has moved in from Salt Lake City to try to make sense of all this and rescue whichever of Joe and Harper can be rescued. Roy Cohn (reprised, and once again phenomenally, in Part 2 by Richard Bradbury) is dying of "liver cancer," and his nurse, Belize (an incredibly talented Adam Newborn) is the friend of Prior and Louis, and the fantasy friend of Harper during her delusions and hallucinations.
In PERESTROIKA, we come face to face with the even more incredible complexities of what happens next. Joe discovers gay sex, yet wants to go back to his wife (partly because Roy has told him that this is what he wants to do); Harper wants her husband back, but wants her sanity even more. Louis discovers that Joe has spent years as a lawyer in Roy Cohn's fold, writing homophobic court opinions for the judges who employ him. Louis wants to return to Prior. And Prior most emphatically does not want to be a prophet. Hannah, who encounters him shortly before he is re-hospitalized, sees him as Jacob, wrestling an angel and receiving a blessing, but he sees himself as Jonah, desperately trying to repudiate a commission to deliver a message. God, like Elvis, has left the building, leaving Heaven in disarray and Earth not much better; the angels are convinced that human progress - all progress -- is responsible for the death of everything, and they want Prior to tell humanity to stop growing, to stop developing - now.
And Roy Cohn is dying, with Ethel Rosenberg's ghost at his side. Sometimes gloating at Cohn's schadenfreude, sometimes sympathetic, Ethel Rosenberg is the conscience Roy doesn't have, and that she doesn't want to be - yet when Roy finally dies and nurse Belize brings his Jewish friend Louis in to see that Cohn has Kaddish recited for him (an act that first horrifies Louis, who hates what Cohn stood for), it is Rosenberg's ghost who, in one of the most moving moments of the show, prompts Louis in the words of the prayer for the dead that he's all but forgotten, a startling gesture of ghostly humanity towards the man who was responsible for killing her.
Such is the nature of forgiveness, however, which is the theme of this half. Rosenberg cannot forgive Cohn for killing her - but she cannot find it in her to refuse the final prayers for him anyway; Louis hates Cohn, but, again, cannot find it in himself to decline that obligation at the end.
Cohn dies horridly, agonizingly, and, in Bradbury's hands, perfectly. It is a measure of Bradbury's work and Fernandez' direction that not only can Rosenberg and Louis reach into themselves to say Kaddish, but that the audience, knowing that they should loathe Cohn themselves, cares about him despite their best efforts otherwise. Despite Garrick's claim that "dying is easy, it's comedy that's hard," Bradbury makes both look quite spectacular to the audience. Kudos to Elizabeth Pattey for the strength of her Ethel Rosenberg as well as for making Hannah, Joe's traditional Mormon mother, a character able to reach into herself to befriend Prior.
Bradbury, Newborn, Greene and Pattey are the standouts of Part 2, Bradbury's Cohn and Newborn's Belize the two polar opposites that fuel the earthly energy of the show, while Greene's Prior delivers the spiritual energy of his reluctant prophet. Pattey simply is - Hannah and Rosenberg are flip sides of a coin, the nurturing mother and the angel of vengeance, and she infuses both with every quality necessary.
At the end of Part 1, we were told that "The great work begins." Here, it is concluded, and hope remains.
Kudos also to Jeff Cusano for light design, which feels almost like an additional character in the production, and to Mike Rhoads for set design. A separate set of compliments must go to those whom Neil Patrick Harris has termed the "anonymous people in black" - rarely is a stage crew as important, or as well-choreographed, as it is here, their work for once plainly seen though not heard.
If you saw Part 1, you must see Part 2. If you missed Part 1, you have only yourself to blame; the recap above is the least you need to know to catch up, but one of your friends who saw Part 1 should give you the full picture while soundly chastising you for not having been there. At EPAC, at the Sharadin Bigler Theatre, through April 6; go. Call 717-733-7966, or visit www.ephrataperformingartscenter.org for tickets.
Photo credit: EPAC