Story: Prior Walter XXXIV (give or take two numbers) is devastated by alarming news he receives late in 1985: He has an infectious disease called AIDS, or Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome. Prior, who is the latest in a long, long line of WASPS who trace their lineage back to the days of William the Conqueror in 11th century England, shares his terrible diagnosis with his Jewish lover, Louis. While Louis is sympathetic and shaken by Prior’s affliction, he increasingly distances himself from his partner as the disease accelerates.
Louis is befriended by a lawyer who notices him sobbing inconsolably in a restroom at the Brooklyn Federal Court of Appeals. The attorney, a Mormon Republican named Joe Pitt, has significant problems of his own. He fiercely fights his homosexual tendencies while also attempting to deal with the mental problems of his neurotic, unhappy wife Harper. Joe further is being pressured by his mentor, infamous attorney Roy Cohn, to accept a position with the federal government in Washington. Unknown to Joe, while Cohn is bullying everyone with his customary nastiness, he himself has been diagnosed with AIDS, news he defiantly refuses to accept, labeling it instead ‘liver cancer.’ The intertwined sagas of Prior, Joe and Cohn move inexorably forward.
Highlights: Playwright Tony Kushner’s sprawling, ambitious saga, sub-titled A Gay Fantasia on National Themes, opened to considerable acclaim 20 years ago, when Part I debuted in San Francisco. The second part, Perestroika, was first staged in Los Angeles in 1993. Now, Stray Dog Theatre artistic director Gary Bell, who lived in New York City in the 1980s when the scourge of an unknown disease that came to be called AIDS started killing its victims with alarming alacrity, is presenting his own daunting undertaking.
Bell is directing both halves of Kushner’s enormous literary accomplishment in rotating repertory for the next month. Each part, Millennium Approaches and Perestroika, is approximately three and a half hours in the telling, with a pair of intermissions for both. What’s extraordinary, though, is how quickly Millennium Approaches moves along in Stray Dog’s smoothly paced rendition that makes for riveting and fascinating theater. With astute but minimal technical design, as emphasized by the author, and several polished performances by the cast, this Angels in America is a soaring triumph.
Other Info: Kushner’s twin efforts each won the Tony Award for Best Play as well as the Pulitzer Prize for Drama for Millennium Approaches. The writing is superior, giving performers substantial fare in which to sink their teeth in crafting their own interpretations of meticulously crafted roles. David Wassilak, e.g., embodies the venal, punitive spirit of the historical Cohn even if his tall, lanky appearance doesn’t match Cohn’s shorter stature. Wassilak charges through Cohn’s dialogue, capturing the fanatic fervor that brought the real Cohn to fame as one of Senator Joseph McCarthy’s rapacious bulldogs during the ‘Red scare’ that swept across America in the 1950s.
Similarly, Ben Watts fully conveys the haughty, arrogant superiority of Prior, a WASP whose family has influenced English and American society for nearly a millennium, while also clearly depicting Prior’s vulnerability in his condition. As Harper, Rachel Hanks masterfully shows us the lonely desperation of a woman who has been removed from the safe harbor of her Salt Lake City roots and is unable to cope in the cruelly impersonal realm of New York City.
Greg Fenner is delightful as Prior’s best friend, a former drag queen named Belize who not only consoles his afflicted friend and former lover but also is held captive to Louis’ long bouts of rationalization and guilt over abandoning Prior. Sarajane Alverson nicely covers roles as diverse as a hospital nurse and a pre-occupied bag lady, while Laura Kyro excels as Joe’s rigid mother and a doddering rabbi.
Aaron Paul Gotzon does well for the most part as the whiny Louis, always looking for exoneration but whose own quality of mercy most definitely is strained in the face of crisis. As Joe, Stephen Peirick is adept at showing the conflict and torment raging inside the latent homosexual’s psyche as he attempts to juggle his strict religious background with his own physical inclinations. Peirick’s inflections, however, seem too often to have a melodious tone that dampens the overall impact of his performance.
Peirick and Wassilak make a fine duo as prior Priors, so to speak, ghosts who visit Prior in his hospital bed and tell him about plagues that terrorized their own generations. Hanks is rather unconvincing as a tough-talking crony of Cohn’s in D.C., but Kyro is effective as the ghost of convicted traitor Ethel Rosenberg, who was executed with the considerable efforts of Cohn.
The spare set designed by Justin Been features an arresting backdrop with such flotsam as a large marimba, wooden planks, carpet padding, fencing and folding chairs, while the stage itself features simple elements like a hospital bed, tables and chairs. Been’s sound design has a classical, melancholy tone that matches much of the mood. Tyler Duenow contributes lighting and the period costumes, including those of Prior’s ancestors, are courtesy of Alexandra Scibetta Quigley.
Kushner’s compelling and comprehensive story has lost none of its impact in the past two decades, as Bell’s masterful interpretation of Millennium Approaches superbly illustrates.
Play: Angels in America, Part One: Millennium Approaches
Group: Stray Dog Theatre
Venue: Tower Grove Abbey, 2336 Tennessee Avenue
Dates: April 26, 27, 28, May 10, 11, 12
Tickets: $18-$20; contact 865-1995 or StrayDogTheatre.org
Rating: A 4.5 on a scale of 1-to-5.
Photos courtesy of John Lamb