BWW Review: ACT 1's Timely and Emotional ANGELS IN AMERICA: MILLENNIUM APPROACHES
In the quarter century since Tony Kushner's Angels in America: A Gay Fantasia on National Themes first exploded upon the theatrical scene, much has changed about society's response to AIDS, homosexuality, politics and life in general. But, perhaps most startling has been the way in which things have remained the same during the 25-plus years since its 1991 debut on a stage in California.
Now onstage in a promising production from ACT 1 at Darkhorse Theatre (the two parts of the play are enacted by two separate casts of actors, under the direction of two directors on a shared set with a shared design aesthetic that connects the two inextricably), Angels in America presents audiences with a unique (almost documentary in tone) opportunity to examine the history and reality of a world in which AIDS was first revealed and a time in which LGBTQ rights seemed to catch fire in the cultural zeitgeist in an America - and a world - not quite prepared for the frank and sometimes brutal discussion that followed. In that manner, Angels in America is something of a period piece - a "memory" play, if you will, that is evoked by the fleeting images of Tennessee Williams' most heartfelt and memorable works that are scattered throughout Millennium Approaches, the first half of Kushner's opus - and it is likely that audiences may find themselves alternately troubled and disheartened, yet somehow hopeful and optimistic, as the oftentimes non-linear action of the play unfolds before them onstage.
The intimate confines of the Darkhorse Theater provide the perfect setting for the play which is, for all intents and purposes, a fanciful yet impactful personal remembrance of times past. The proximity of the action to the audience helps to underscore the play's theatricality with realism, giving it added emotional heft for those who lived through the era, in particular, while imparting a sense of urgency for those viewing the story as history, from an outsider's perspective. Thus, the dichotomy of the LGBTQ community's struggle to achieve parity and equality becomes even more apparent: If you lived through those times, your view of the piece is different from someone who has just read about them. Like all veterans of warfare, it's sometimes difficult to relate what you lived through in such a way to make it interesting for those who follow in your wake.
Allow me, if you will, to indulge in a bit of introspection and reflection that may help explain where I am coming from: In 1988, my partner and I started the first weekly newspaper (Dare) for the lesbian and gay community in Tennessee - our first issue featured an above-the-fold story about an appearance at Vanderbilt of conservative Rep. William Dannemeyer (R-California), an outspoken critic of homosexuality who is mentioned in Kushner's script and who supported a ban on HIV-positive immigrants - and so much of our early years were spent covering the AIDS pandemic and its impact throughout the world. In fact, I authored a series of stories about how my own rural Southern family had dealt with the revelation that my nephew had AIDS and how it was changing attitudes among the people with whom I had grown up. For weeks, I would write reams of copy about the evolution of my family while my nephew struggled to remain alive - it was heart-wrenching and potentially devastating, to be certain, but it was my hope that our family's story might help others dealing with the same volatile issues.
From that perspective, I can assure you that reality was much more difficult and far more upsetting than what transpires onstage in Kushner's epic play, yet Angels in America remains relevant years after its debut because it once again focuses attention on the horrors of a particular time and place. Imagine this: As a gay man, you've always considered yourself lucky, after all chances are you'll never be faced with an unwanted pregnancy and you live with the notion you can have as much sex with as many different partners as you could possibly imagine without fear (most "social" diseases could easily be dealt with - or so you thought - with a shot of penicillin). Then one night you turn on a nationally televised newscast to hear a report of a frightening new type of cancer affecting gay men and you realize your heretofore lightly regarded sense of complacency is beginning to unravel. Our previously presumed sexual immortality proved short-lived, robbing us of that which set us apart from everyone else. We thought we'd be fucking until we died, never realizing just how prophetic that statement would prove to be.
What followed is something a certain generation of gay men, of whom I am one, continue to deal with: the decimation of our numbers, the loss of an entire generation of creative artists, and God's retribution visited upon the sinners who already were considered the dregs of society by many. And so, perhaps, that is the audience for whom Kushner's awe-inspiring play most deeply resonates...yet there are so many of us gone who never got to witness it, who never were able to see their stories related in so dramatic a fashion. There is a lot of guilt surrounding survivorship.
In Millennium Approaches, Kushner sets the stage for the stories he tells in a highly theatrical manner, using dream sequences and drug-induced scenes to bring together his various characters in ways only the imagination could offer. His ability to expose the very limits of imagination to a stagebound script is startlingly effective and credit must be given to director Jim Manning (who helms Part 1 with confidence and unyielding focus) and his team, both onstage and off-, for their forbearance and palpable sense of duty to the real people who inspired Kushner to write so vividly.
By turns lyrical and beautiful, sometimes laugh-out-loud funny and emotionally draining in the same sentence, Kushner's script is haunting. Manning and his cast gives full voice to it with a sense of alacrity and importance that it once again feels current and timely in these post-Reagan Era years in which we see a reality television host occupying the White House and instilling the same sense of fear and dread among the people we know, love and respect. What goes around, comes around...if we forget our history we are doomed to repeat it...whatever axiom works best for you can easily be applied to Angels in America and its reverberating impact, theatrical or otherwise.
As with any community theater production, the quality of performance among Manning's eight-member ensemble (joined onstage by a pair of "Kabuki stagehands" who ensure the production flows at an almost cinematic pace - kudos to Christina Candilora and Shannon Clark for their seamlessly realized moments) varies, although the overall effect is impressively winning.
Geoff Davin, although there is nothing about him to physically suggest the character of Roy Cohn, is nonetheless breathtaking in his courageous performance that completely transforms him into the loathsome historical figure who was the mentor to the buffoon in today's Oval Office. Brett Myers is equally impressive as the confused and closeted Mormon Joe Pitt, managing to ideally capture his character's sense of ennui as he struggles with his sexuality and his self-imposed ignorance at the world around him.
As Prior Walter, the scion of an old American family who is the first to succumb to AIDS, Gregory Alexander gives a strong performance that's limned by too many memories of friends and loved ones who actually lived through the struggle. Alexander very skillfully skirts caricature, however, imbuing Prior with so much heart to create a flesh-and-blood character who is certain to cause more self-reflection. As his diffident partner Louis, Bradley Moore gives as good as he gets, yet his character arc is far more off-putting for the judgmental among us.
Liz Walsh plays the dazed and confused Harper Pitt with an unerring sense of wonder that seems akin to Alice's trip down the rabbit hole and Lanie Shannon is particularly noteworthy for rising to the challenge of several different characters (including Joe's oppressive mother and Ethel Rosenberg - who's having quite the renaissance on the Nashville stage of late) with aplomb. Meggan Utech displays a wide range of dramatic skill in her own assignments, playing each of her characters with equal dexterity and grace and providing a particularly stunning presence of the Angel, whose appearance foretells of what's to come in Part 2: Perestroika. Finally, AaRon Smith completes the ensemble with style as Belize, the ex-drag queen/ex-lover of Prior, who doubles as Mr. Lies, the patron saint/spokesmodel of duplicitous travel agents.
Manning's set design provides the appropriate backdrop for the play's action and makes the most of the Darkhorse's physical limitations to add a heightened sense of theatricality to the proceedings. Pat Street's sound design is terrific and is, perhaps, among the best we've ever encountered at the venue, while Phillip Froeter's lighting design shows off Manning's set and his ensemble of actors to perfection. Cat Arnold's costumes are impressively realized and help to capture the era of the play's time-setting, with special attention called for Jennifer Kleine's exquisite and ethereal costume design for the Angel.
But perhaps what is most amazing about this production is the fact that it is being done at all - with both parts 1 and 2 presented in repertory over a two-week period - and that it is the debut production of the entirety of Angels in America: A Gay Fantasia on National Themes in Nashville. Though it's a challenge for any theater company, particularly a community theater organization, it's been too long a time in coming to Tennessee's capital city and, clearly, it's a theatrical event that shouldn't be missed.
Angels in America: A Gay Fantasia on National Themes; Part One: Millennium Approaches. By Tony Kushner. Directed by Jim Manning. Presented by ACT 1, in partnership with Carlton Cornett, LCSW and DeWayne Fulton, at Darkhorse Theater, Nashville. Through March 25. For tickets, go to www.ACT1online.com. Running time: 3 hours (with two 10-minute intermission).