by Clark Groome
“Angels in America, Part I: Millennium Approaches,” which the Wilma Theater is presenting through July 1, is only half the story. Part II, “Perestroika,” will open the Wilma’s 2012-2013 season in September.
“Angels in America” is an exciting, frustrating, creative, sometimes diffuse and occasionally poetic evening in the theater. Subtitled “A Gay Fantasia on National Themes,” the play originally opened to unanimously ecstatic reviews exactly 19 years ago in New York.
Tony Kushner, the openly gay playwright whose soaring imagination and sensitivity won him and his New York production two Tonys and the Pulitzer Prize for Drama, is simply using what he knows best to express his views about issues with universal meaning. The play’s sprawling content spans commitment and vulnerability, hypocrisy and faith. It’s a full plate he’s serving his audience, and it’s mostly very satisfying.
To tell his story, Kushner has set the piece in 1985 in the middle of the Reagan era, for which he has no respect, and the AIDS crisis, about which, like all gay men at the time, he has a great deal of feeling. In that world he has cast two couples, one gay and one confused. He has also included in the mix that real life homophobic homosexual monster, Roy Cohn (Stephen Novelli).
The play opens with a rabbi presiding at the funeral of a very old woman and ends with an angel descending from the flies to redeem the soul of a young man dying of AIDS.
Contrasts abound in the play. The gay couple, Louis Ironson (Benjamin Pelteson) and Prior Walter (Aubrey Deeker), are truly committed to each other, although Prior’s AIDS diagnosis severely challenges Louis’ love for his dying partner.
Joe (Luigi Sottile) and Harper Pitt (Kate Czajkowski) are a Mormon couple whose life is skewed by Harper’s dependence on Valium and Joe’s emerging homosexuality.
When Roy Cohn is also diagnosed with AIDS, he refuses to admit he’s gay while Prior embraces his identity, another contrast drawn in the play.
The Wilma’s production captures the characters and the situation impressively. Blanka Zizka’s sharp direction and the excellent cast — which also includes Mala DeSanti, the superb James Ijames, and Mary Elizabeth Scallen — brings Kushner’s fantasia stunningly to life.
The physical production uses a very simple white set (designed by Matt Saunders) on which set pieces are arranged and moved on and off to establish the play’s various locations. This approach and the set were, to my eye, the evening’s weakest elements. The monochromatic visual impact of the set didn’t adequately complement the stories being told on it.
Oana Botez’ costumes, Russell H. Champa’s lighting and Christopher Colucci’s sound and original music, on the other hand, were all superb.
“Angels in America, Part I: Millennium Approaches” is complicated and often convoluted. It is also stunning theater. FYI, the show runs slightly less than three-and-one-half hours. It doesn’t seem that long and is worth every minute you spend with it.
For tickets to “Angels in America, Part One” Millennium Approaches,” playing at the Wilma Theater through July 1, call 215-546-7824 or visit www.wilmatheater.org