Review: Central Square Theater Presents Spellbinding ANGELS IN AMERICA, PART I: MILLENNIUM APPROACHES

Running through May 28 in Cambridge, MA.

Photos: See Shereen Pimentel, Omar Lopez-Cepero & More in All New Images of EVITA at A.R.T.

With his epic two-part drama "Angels in America: A Gay Fantasia on National Themes," playwright Tony Kushner created an enduring masterwork about homosexuality and AIDS in 1980s America that is as powerfully thought-provoking today as it was when it first opened on Broadway in 1993.

Now, thanks to a spellbinding, not-to-be-missed Central Square Theater production - presented in collaboration with the New York-based Bedlam - and running in Cambridge through May 28, theatergoers have a chance to experience "Millennium Approaches," part one of the Pulitzer Prize- and Tony Award-winning play, and see why it is one of the most significant plays of the last half-century.

Set in 1985-86, during Ronald Reagan's second term in the White House, the story details the many ways that AIDS affects a group of individuals, some directly connected to each other and others linked only by commonality.

Deb Sivigny's light-on-props production design employs an array of office chairs, period telephones, occasional tables, and a plain white sheet - imaginatively repurposed to convey everything from a shroud to a gown to angel's wings - on a set that connotes a photo studio or a triage unit, but represents the play's many settings including a graveyard, bedrooms, living rooms, hospital rooms, a lawyer's office, and the Central Park Ramble.

Director Eric Tucker, Bedlam's artistic director, keeps the action brisk by having the actors roll around the stage on the various chairs, sometimes pushed by their fellow actors. He also effectively shifts focus and mood with actors also operating onstage lights for dramatic effects.

The three-hour-plus play lays bare each character's truths in a kind of intimate, often secret world that evokes the closeted lives led by many in the LGBTQ+ community at the time, and the terrible toll wrought by the AIDS pandemic.

A first-rate cast of local and out-of-town actors is uniformly excellent. Even so, there are standouts, including the superb Eddie Shields. As in last season's SpeakEasy Stage Company production of "The Inheritance," Shields is once again impossible to look away from.

Here, his Prior Walter - a young gay man in a relationship who has to tell his partner, Louis, that he has AIDS - is more than just a compelling character. He is the play's heart. And the actor holds nothing back, dragging himself around on the floor as his character's health worsens, roiling with emotion, railing against the world and the boyfriend who all but abandons him, and using his eyes hauntingly to convey how his illness is gradually overtaking him.

Steven Barkhimer has assumed the role - played earlier in the run by Tucker - of Roy Cohn, the venomous, acid-spewing attorney who trained at the hand of communist-baiting Senator Joseph McCarthy and went on to become a confidant of everyone from Ronald and Nancy Reagan to Donald Trump. Cohn is also AIDS-stricken but, never one to be encumbered by the truth, says instead that he has liver cancer.

Barkhimer plays Cohn as a raging bulldog, full of anger and impatience. Cohn can be serious, even sympathetic at times, but he's also a control fiend who trusts few, and while he can sometimes be funny, he is always, always scary.

Cohn isn't the only unlikeable character. Louis Ironson, Prior's boyfriend who leaves him in his time of need - convincingly portrayed by Zach Fike Hodges - is decidedly unsympathetic. That there were and are people like Louis, whose selfishness and self-pity allow them to eschew decency and humanity in favor of self-preservation, makes his actions no easier to condone.

Nael Nacer gives a fine performance as Joe Pitt, the Mormon lawyer mentored by Cohn and struggling with his own undeclared homosexuality, while changes in his world and the world around him threaten to upend everything he pins his identity to, including his marriage to the prescription drug-addicted, sometimes hallucinating Harper, played movingly by Kari Buckley.

Belize, Prior's compassionate caregiver and friend, and onetime drag queen, is brought to vivid life by the versatile Maurice Emmanuel Parent, fierce and formidable in fur and fur-trimmed coats and palazzo pants by costume designer Daniele Tyler Mathews.

The always estimable Debra Wise is splendid as both Hannah Pitt, Joe's willfully confused and unforgiving mother, and the ghost of Ethel Rosenberg, who returns to haunt Cohn, prosecutor in the 1951 espionage trial that resulted in her execution. Wise is also terrific in brief turns as a rabbi and as Cohn's longtime personal physician.

And while she may not descend from on high as in some productions, Helen Hy-Yuen Swanson as the Angel is still an ethereal presence. Swanson is also effective as a dispassionate nurse, clinical in her approach to Prior.

It's true that today's political climate makes "Angels in America" as relevant now as it was when it was first produced. What the engrossing production now at Central Square Theater in Cambridge also affirms, however, is that dramas of this importance are always worth revisiting.

(Central Square Theater will present "Angels in America: Perestroika," part two of Kushner's play, beginning September 7.)

Photo Caption: Maurice Emmanuel Parent, Zach Fike Hodges, Eddie Shields, Nael Nacer, and Helen Hy-Yuen Swanson in Angels in America. Photo: Nile Scott Studios.


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