Richard Prioleau (right) and Mark Junek (left) in Angels in America, Part One, Millennium Approaches, 2017. Photo by Bill Brymer.

Angels in America, Part One: Millennium Approaches

By Tony Kushner

Directed by Meredith McDonough

Review by Taylor Clemons

Entire contents copyright © 2017 Taylor Clemons. All rights reserved.

Since the early 90s, Angels in America has been looked at as somewhat of a phenomenon. It wasn't until 1993 that the play received it's Broadway debut after being workshopped and performed in London during the three years prior. Millennium Approaches went on to win the Tony Award for Best Play and the Pulitzer Prize for Drama, both in 1993. It wouldn't be until later that year that the play's Part Two would open in New York, and ultimately win the Tony Award for Best Play in 1994. Since it's inception the play has managed to astound, perplex, and revit audiences it meets. Most people probably know the play best from the 2003 HBO miniseries. The HBO version, adapted for the screen by Kushner himself, went on to be nominated for 21 Emmys, taking home 11, including Outstanding Miniseries.

Part One opened this past Thursday in a new production lead by Meredith McDonough in Actors Theatre of Louisville's Pamela Brown Auditorium. The energy and anticipation of the audience as we entered the space was palpable. This feeling of excitement was only intensified upon the first viewing of an absolutely beautiful set by William Boles. It's set up to look like a dilapidated grand mansion, and invokes a spiritual feeling that is hard to put my finger on, but whatever that feeling is, as far as I'm concerned it worked brilliantly. As the lights went down the crowd went silent, as we prepared for Part One of this modern day epic.

The show focuses on the relationships of many separate individuals and their unknowing connections between one another. Set in 1985 in the midst of the Reagan administration, and the height of the AIDS epidemic.

I apologize for the lengthiness of this synopsis. I've done my best to avoid spoilers, but in show that is so very plot driven with complicated relationships, that is a bit harder to do. If you wish to skip the plot, please proceed to the 11th paragraph of this review.

In the opening scene we meet Rabbi Chemelwitz (Barbara Walsh), who is delivering the eulogy at the funeral of a woman who is at this point unknown to us. Soon after we are introduced to Louis (Richard Gallagher) and Prior (Mark Junek). We learn that they have just attended the funeral of Louis' grandmother. It's very clear that Louis and Prior are deeply in love. Sitting on a park bench, we the audience and Louis learn that Prior has been diagnosed with AIDS, a death sentence at this time in history. Unable to cope, Louis leaves Prior to attend his deceased grandmother's burial.

We then shift to a New York City law firm. There we meet Roy Cohn (Lou Liberatore) and Joe Pitt (Brian Slaten). Roy proceeds to offer Joe a job that requires him and his wife, Harper (Therese Barbato) to relocate to Washington, D.C. from New York. Unable to make a decision, Joe looks to his Mormon faith and to his wife for guidance. We then meet Joe's wife Harper. She's a stay at home wife who struggles with apparent mental illness, she is addicted to Valium. In her drugged state, she meets with Mr. Lies (Richard Prioleau). A figment of her imagination, she uses him as a way to escape the everyday realities of her life.

As the story progresses and Prior's illness gets worse, Louis begins to distance himself more and more. Prior soon begins to have strange visions. He sees things that aren't there and finds it hard to differentiate between what is real, and what is not. A brief meeting between Joe and Louis in the restroom of the workplace they share leads Joe to question many things about himself and the life he is living. During a visit to his doctor (Barbara Walsh as Henry), Roy learns that he too has AIDS. Afraid of ruining his career and reputation, Roy more or less denies what Henry has to say, insisting that people will be told he's battling liver cancer.

Somehow Prior and Harper meet in somewhat of a limbo land. Crossing paths through their own delusions, Harper learns from Prior that Joe, is indeed gay. They part ways and return to reality, leaving Harper with more than a few things to question. Prior and Louis' mutual friend Belize (Richard Prioleau) is a frequent visitor of Prior's (now in the hospital, too weak to stay at home). He gives Prior advice and comfort as he is suspended in a constant state of despair.

As Roy's condition worsens, he is met with the spirit of Ethel Rosenburg (Barbara Walsh), a woman who years prior Roy helped to execute. She has returned to watch and take pleasure in Roy's despair as his life is hanging in the balance. Meanwhile, in a drunken stupor, Roy calls his mother Hannah (Barbara Walsh) and confesses his homosexuality. Hannah hangs up, wanting to pretend the phone call never happened. She proceeds to put her Utah home on the market and flies out to the city to find and be with her son.

Prior, now back at home as his condition slightly improves, begins to get visits from his ancestors. Confused and alarmed as to what is going on, he is told that something and someone bigger is coming, and that he is a key piece of a grand and complicated cosmic puzzle.

Performances were universally outstanding. Mark Juenk as Prior is appropriately heartbreaking and complicated as what I would consider the most central character of this epic story. One second he's making you laugh, and the next you feel a deep sense of sorrow for him. Lou Liberatore is rough and rigid as Roy. Witnessing his transformation from an Alpha dog to a vulnerable patient crippled by AIDS is fascinating and wonderful to watch. Brian Salen does a great job as Joe. I feel he does his best work with Therese Barbato as Harper. Their scenes together are electric. They play off of each other well, and you can tell that they love sharing the stage. Richard Gallagher as Louis depicts a complicated man who is faced with impossible and soul crushing circumstances as the one he loves is dying in front of him. Richard Prioleau as Belize is an absolute scene stealer. Delivering some much needed and appreciated comedic relief in the midst of heavy subject matter. Barbara Walsh in her many roles is an absolute treat. It's not everyday Louisville get's to witness a Tony nominated Broadway legend. She commands the stage every time she's on, and I can honestly say the vast differences in her characters are the true sign of a master at work.

The sum it up, the play is a masterpiece. In my opinion it has aged like a fine wine. It never feels stale or dated, but shockingly relevant. Kushner's writing is crisp. His scenes sizzle and pop off of the page, and bring a vast variety of real complicated and very flawed characters to life. In my opinion, Angels in America is required viewing for anyone with a beating heart. It does what great art should do, it truly captured a moment in time and mirrored life.

McDonough's direction is seamless. A three hour play can feel clunky and drawn out if it's not in adequate hands, and McDonough was very much up to the challenge. The evening flies by, and at the end of the show I was left with the overwhelming desire for more. Needless to say, I am counting down the days to Part Two of this modern american classic that opens in repertory with Part One later this month. In short, this production is nothing less than absolutely extraordinary. From the moment the play starts, everyone is on an emotional rollercoaster that never shows any sign of stopping. This isn't just the season opener for Actors Theatre, this is, in every sense of the word, an event that people will be discussing and gushing about for years to come.

*Please note the play is listed as age 16 and up due to the intense themes and full frontal male nudity.

Angels in America, Part One: Millennium Approaches Now - October 10, 2017

Actors Theatre of Louisville

316 W. Main Street

Louisville, KY 40202

Tickets: (502) 584-1205

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