BWW Reviews: Playhouse on Park's ANGELS IN AMERICA: Excellence Approaches

ANGELS IN AMERICA, PART ONE - MILLENNIUM APPROACHES
Theatre: Playhouse on Park
Location: 244 Park Street, West Hartford, CT
Production: Written by Tony Kushner; Directed by Sean Harris; Scenic Design by Christopher Hoyt; Lighting Design by Aaron Hochheiser; Costume Design by Demara Cabrera; Sound Design/Original Compositions by Joel Abbott. Through October 19; Wednesday and Thursday at 7:30 p.m.; Friday and Saturday at 8 p.m.; Sunday at 2 p.m. Tickets $22.50 to $35.00, visit www.playhouseonpark.org.

With Angels in America, Part One - Millennium Approaches it seems as if, six years into their existence, Playhouse on Park has flown into the big leagues. Comparable in scope and quality to anything on the major regional stages in the state, this ambitious production makes a bid for PoP to be taken seriously by both the community and the theatre critics who too often overlook this Park Road gem.

To be honest, I was not certain that the small company, with a fraction of the budget enjoyed by its larger peers, could pull off Tony Kushner's Pulitzer and Tony-winning masterwork. Yes, this is due to more slender resources, but also because the play is so far beyond the reach of most of the work they have presented to date.

At three-and-a-half hours in duration, Millennium Approaches would seem like a daunting sit for even a seasoned theatregoer. The production flies by on the strength of its marvelous cast, inventive staging, tight direction, and, of course, Kushner's staggering text. I brought an Angels novice with me, promising that he could leave at one of the two intermissions if he found it too difficult to sit through for the duration. At the end of the play, he turned to me and said, "Now I want to see the second part!" In short, don't be scared by the running time.

It is hard to say in a brief paragraph what Angels in America is about without frightening away audiences or writing volumes. In short, the play is set in 1985, when the AIDS epidemic has been diagnosed, but the Reagan Administration has refused to acknowledge it in any substantial way. This has gays, closeted and out alike, running scared. Simultaneously, the ozone layer is depleting, threatening massive ecological destruction. Conservative political dominance has liberals running for cover, and dying religions fail to provide comfort. Prescription drugs put people in a world of happy and terrifying hallucinations. In other words, as the new millennium approaches, doom seems inevitable. Various signs, however, portend that a messenger is coming. Will the news be good or bad? And why does this sound like anything anyone would want to see??

The content may make the play a challenge for the more faint of heart as Kushner's epic takes head-on things that people don't like to discuss: AIDS, politics, religion, sexuality, gender, philosophy, the End Times, and the environment. Rather than stuffing all of this interwoven material into a standard ninety minute to 2.5 hour play, the playwright spun his fear, anger and passion into a two-part, seven hour sprawl that manages to be intimate AND massive at the same time. The story is very personal, human, and, surprisingly, humorous.

The cast is uniformly excellent with most actors playing two or more roles, allowing Kushner (and Playhouse on Park) to maintain the tricky balance between a large cast of characters and a somewhat modest number of bodies. Picking a standout in such a strong ensemble piece would appear to be unfair, but Kristen Harlow as the Valium-addled Mormon wife, Hannah Pitt, hits all the right, fractured notes. As her husband, Tim Hackney does an exceedingly well moderated turn, showing the inner turmoil churning below the surface. Jim Shankman's Roy Cohn is a blistering, foul-mouthed pit bull, while James Parenti's Prior Walter manages to be both tormented and fabulous.

The sound design by Joel Abbott is the best I have experienced at Playhouse on Park, and the sensitive lighting by Aaron Hochheiser allows the Spartan set by Chris Hoyt to see more expansive or diminutive than it actually is. I will not spoil how the infamous coup de theatre that closes the play is accomplished, but suffice to say all of the design team deserve major kudos for a jaw-dropping surprise.

The true star of the production, however, is the director and visionary behind this Angels. Sean Harris clearly feels passionate about this play. Despite the visceral nature of the work and a daunting running time, he bravely kicks off Playhouse on Park's sixth season with what could have been a major bomb with audiences skittish about challenging work. Instead, he triumphs and we can't wait to see what he does next.

Photo of James Parenti and Marty Scanlon by Richard Wagner.

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From This Author Jacques Lamarre

Jacques Lamarre has worked in theatre for over 20 years. As a Public Relations/Marketing professional, he held positions at Hartford Stage, TheaterWorks Hartford and Yale (read more...)

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