BWW Review: ANGELS IN AMERICA at Virginia Jackson Browning Theatre
The Repertory Theatre of St. Louis has opened the 2019-2020 season with a challenging and poignant interpretation of Tony Kushner's Angels in America. Winner of the Pulitzer Prize for Drama, the Tony Award for Best Play, and the Drama Desk Award for Outstanding Play, it is an ambitious endeavor that continues the company's mission to present provocative theater.
Set in 1985 New York at the height of the AIDS crisis, the Rep's version of Angels in America is carefully crafted by director Tony Speciale, who has captured the epic scale of the play without sacrificing any of its harsh reality or emotional spirit.
Sparing nothing in playing on every emotion, Angels in America is split into two distinctive sections. Part One: Millennium Approaches is more of a traditional drama that introduces audiences to the affable and exuberant Prior Walter. Full of energy and quick wit, his life is upended after he is diagnosed with AIDS. As he wrestles with living with a death sentence, his overly verbose partner Joe experiences a panicky gamut of emotions that lead him to make several regrettable decisions.
In the meantime, Mormon/Republican/Lawyer Joe Pitt is on his own adventure. His marriage to Harper, his valium-addicted wife, is a mess and his career seems stalled. Sequestered in their Brooklyn apartment Harper longs for a responsive soulmate and a fulfilling life. While she looks for happiness in her life, the uptight, conservative, closeted Joe considers a job offer with the Justice Department from his boss, Roy Cohn.
Based on the real Roy Cohn, the character is a venomous snake of a human being. Spewing hatred and malicious intent at every turn, he is also a closeted homosexual. A key figure in the McCarthy era and a mentor to Donald Trump, Cohn has a predilection for breaking laws and bullying everyone around him. To him, the law is a pliable blunt object useful for beating down his enemies.
The lives of the two couples intersect after Joe and Louis meet at work. It is an uncomfortable moment for Joe, who is challenged about his sexuality for the first time. Serving as a catalyst for change and discovery, Louis fascinates Joe, setting the stage for a chain of events that will deeply affect both of their lives.
A lifetime of callousness and debauchery catches up with Roy Cohn when he is diagnosed with AIDS. Outspoken in his dislike for homosexuality, he snarls, sneers and lashes out at his doctor, declaring he merely has liver cancer. Desperate to survive and appalled by his plight, Cohn uses his clout to get the best medicine money can buy for his treatment.
Overwhelmed by Prior's diagnosis and fearful he won't be able to watch his lover suffer, Louis leaves Prior and heads off into the night. Knowing his actions are terrible, he nonetheless opts for a quick getaway from the pain.
Attempting to reconcile his conservative and religious beliefs with his sexuality, Joe undergoes a search for self-discovery. Now fully aware of who he is, the conservative lawyer turns to Louis for guidance. After a series of coy exchanges, their relationship culminates in a late-night encounter in Central Park. Filled with self-assurance for the first time, Joe comes out over the phone to his mother, Hannah, in Salt Lake City.
Eventually returning to Brooklyn, Joe is confronted by Harper, who knows that her marriage is over. Hoping he could speak to her without inflicting any pain, Joe quickly learns that the damage is unrepairable.
Weak and decimated by the virus, Prior remains resilient thanks to the help of his friend Belize, who provides physical and moral support. As his illness progresses Prior is troubled by a supernatural voice in his head heralding the arrival of a messenger who is coming soon to meet him.
As Part One closes, the drama recedes to make way for the supernatural as Roy is visited by the ghost of Ethel Rosenberg, whose execution he helped orchestrate during the Red Scare of the 1950s. Her visit drives Roy into a rabid spiral of paranoid delirium and rage.
Weakened and ravaged by sickness, Prior's visions become a reality when his prophetic visions manifest themselves with the appearance of an angel who breaks through his ceiling and proclaims that he is a prophet with important work ahead of him.
Part Two: Perestroika, finds Kushner's characters continuing their individual struggles to accept who they are. As the calendar turns to 1986, the AIDS crisis has worsened, the Chernobyl explosion has killed thousands, and Gorbachev promises to reform the Soviet Union. This time of tumult and change lays the foundation for the rest of Angels in America. Steeped in metaphor, it is more confrontational than its predecessor.
It opens with Hannah, who has sold her home in Utah and ventured to New York to find her son, developing a deeper relationship with Harper. Struggling with depression and a husband who is nowhere in sight, she is in desperate need of companionship.
Having not seen her son for nearly three weeks, Hannah becomes more and more worried. Hoping to find solace at the Mormon Visitor's Center in Manhattan, her time as a volunteer there is repeatedly challenged by Harper, whose hallucinations are the source of additional problems.
Racing to understand all the angel has confided in him, Prior journeys to the center with hopes of finding answers to his questions. After a conversation with Harper about their respective lovers they each begin to understand their destinies.
A despicable person in every possible way, Roy Cohn serves as the antithesis for everything that is good. Despite his demeanor, the bedridden power broker receives empathy from his nurse, Belize. Snarling with blatant racism and unwillingness to accept that he is dying of AIDS, Cohn has tragically dashed all hopes of redemption.
Putting his duty as a caregiver first, Belize begrudgingly offers Cohn the compassion and dignity Cohn has denied others in his lifetime. Haunted by Ethel Rosenberg and staring death in the face, Cohn defiantly refuses empathy, choosing instead to hold on to his abhorrent convictions to the very end.
Having turned down Roy's promotion and ruined his marriage, Joe has a fever of his own. After spending three weeks with Louis he finally appears to have come to terms with the fact that he is a gay man. Comfortable in his own skin at last, he professes his love for Louis. But for Louis things are not that simple. His leaving Prior when he was most needed has been eating away at him, causing him to reexamine his actions.
Longing for forgiveness, Louis visits Prior with hopes of getting back together. His advancements are rebuffed by Prior who tells Louis that, despite his love, he cannot be with him anymore.
The tension in Louis' relationship reaches a crescendo after Belize informs him of Joe's previous work as a law clerk. Enraged by his association with the demagogue Roy Cohn, he confronts Joe about his past, leading to an argument that ends with violent consequences.
It is at this moment where all of the percolating hostility, intolerance, pressure, passion and humanity coalesces into a climax for each of the characters. While Harper discovers independence, Hannah understands the importance of new perspectives and Louis relaxes, a little. Having wrestled metaphysically with both angels and his personal demons, Prior embraces his fate with a fiery determination to live every second of his life.
A masterclass in acting, timing and pacing, Angels in America is a visceral drama that resonates with audiences via its ensemble. At the core of the production is Barrett Foa, who brings depth, recklessness and gusto to his performance as Prior Walter.
Playing a real person onstage is never easy, yet Peter Frechette makes it seem effortless. At a time when the world is looking for heroes, Cohn revels in playing a despot, reviled by everyone who lays eyes on him. Tony- and Emmy-nominated Frechette is a force of nature who serves as the Yang to Foa's Yin. Seldom has someone so seething with prejudice been so compelling to watch.
Meredith Baxter also brings her own Zen to Angels in America. With so much noise going on in the production about the rampant conservatism, division, religion, bigotry and greed of the AIDS crisis, she is the calm that holds it together. She is a joy to watch as Hannah opens her eyes to the world.
Ben Cherry's Louis is the real manic panic of the mid 1980s. In a performance that is equal parts frustration, elation and sorrow, he excels. In making Louis pent up on the outside and a fighter on the inside, he gives audiences a wide range of layers to explore.
Harper constantly walks a tenuous tightrope that perfectly blends melancholy and tenacity. Joe Pitt is not the easiest guy in the world to figure out, yet Jayson Speters gives him an 'aw shucks' vulnerability that makes you forget all about his shady politics. There is nothing timid in Gina Daniels portrayal of the angel. She is powerful and majestic.
On the technical side, both parts of Angels in America utilize mixed media and open, trimmed down sets. This enables the ensemble to undertake the formidable task of presenting Kushner's masterpiece in both retrospective and contemporary contexts.
This must-see event is in equal parts a depiction, dialogue, response and conversation about the AIDS crisis. It also is underpinned by themes of race, life, death, faith and politics.
Overall, Angels in America gives audiences an epic affair that begins Hana Sharif's tenure as the Rep's Artistic Director with an exclamation point while also signaling that the company remains committed to presenting socially and culturally important work.
Angels in America plays at the Virginia Jackson Browning Theatre through October 6th. For showtimes and more information visit http://www.repstl.org