Story: Picking up where Angels in America, Part One: Millennium Approaches ended, Prior Walter copes with his diagnosis of AIDS in early 1986. His lover, Louis, has abandoned him in his critical condition and taken up with Joe Pitt, a conservative, Mormon, Republican attorney who struggles to come to terms with his own homosexuality. Joe’s wife, Harper, a depressive agoraphobic, relies on pills and her own hallucinations to cope with the imposing and impersonal vastness of New York City, thousands of miles from the Salt Lake City of her youth. Joe’s mother, Hannah, has moved from Salt Lake City to her son’s home in Gotham, at first to deal with his stark confession but eventually to care for her mentally ill daughter-in-law.
Prior and Harper eventually meet in person at the Mormon Visitors’ Center where Hannah volunteers and takes Harper to keep an eye on her, and strengthen the strange psychological bond previously formed in his dream and her hallucination. Joe and Louis battle demons in their own relationship, while Joe’s mentor, Roy Cohn, steadily slides downhill with his own case of AIDS even as he resolutely refuses to accept the diagnosis of the ‘gay’ disease and fights a movement in New York to have him disbarred. The most frequent visitor to his hospital bed is the ghost of Ethel Rosenberg, the woman he had executed for treason decades earlier. Further complicating matters, Prior is visited again by an angel who proclaims him to be a modern prophet with important work to do on Earth.
Highlights: It’s difficult to capsulize the myriad plotlines underway in playwright Tony Kushner’s ambitious, daunting and exhaustive epic that garnered him a Pulitzer Prize for Drama (for Millennium Approaches) and back-to-back Tony Awards for Best Play. What’s even more mind-boggling is to contemplate Stray Dog artistic director Gary Bell’s desire to produce both works in rotating repertory in April and May, something that to my knowledge hasn’t been done by a local company in St. Louis (a touring version of both plays appeared at The Fox in the 1990s in cooperation with The Repertory Theatre of St. Louis).
While Bell’s effort has a slight misstep here and there, for the most part it is a Herculean feat that is actually superior as a whole than the two splendid pieces are individually. Considering the running time of seven and one-half hours, including four hours for Perestroika, it’s a dazzling accomplishment on the part of everyone involved, both on stage and behind the scenes, passionate and absorbing theater on the highest level.
Other Info: Bell’s inspired cast soars in the second edition of this engaging and captivating Angels in America. Ben Watts is stunning in the pivotal role of Prior. Whether he’s castigating the weak-willed Louis, bantering with his fiercely loyal friend Belize or debating his place in the cosmos with the winged messenger who descends into his life, Watts is consistently convincing as he battles a modern-day plague on both physical and psychological fronts.
Likewise, Rachel Hanks sketches an endearing and heartfelt portrait of the fragile Harper, showing her delicate psyche through much of the two works while also slowly developing Harper’s growing independence as she learns to accept reality. And as Roy Cohn, David Wassilak commands the stage with a powerful, persuasive portrayal of the unrepentant attorney who refuses to succumb to decency even as his death approaches.
Stephen Peirick notches up his portrayal of the troubled Joe Pitt in Perestroika, with strong, pulsating scenes as he achingly tries to swim against the tide and save his marriage to Harper, parries and thrusts in his tentative dance with Louis or, most pronounced, a devastating scene with Laura Kyro as his implacable mother.
Kyro once again etches a number of precise characterizations, whether the feeble, “oldest Bolshevik,” the resolute and determined Hannah with her innate decency or the steady, steely ghost of Ethel Rosenberg, who assists Joe in surprising fashion and maintains a vigil of justice with Cohn.
Aaron Paul Gotzon offers a well-etched interpretation of the guilt-wracked Louis, while Greg Fenner finely brings the wit and wisdom of nurse and sometime drag queen Belize to the fore as well as a glib travel agent in Harper’s hallucinations. Sarajane Alverson is smart, funny and scary as the commanding angel, who barges into not only Prior’s life but the confused Hannah’s as well.
Kushner’s adventure into Heaven in Perestroika’s final act is the major hiccup in his cautionary tale, a confused sermon about God’s cruelty and ineffectuality that results in a meeting of “Continental Principalities” that unfortunately and awkwardly resembles a scene from Clash of the Titans.
Regardless, Perestroika is another resounding triumph for Bell and Stray Dog Theatre. Bell’s direction is inspired, meticulous and thorough, superbly complemented by the show’s technical aspects. Justin Been’s scenic design offers a blend of the concrete (hospital bed, bizarre Mormon diorama) and the abstract (a backdrop of disparate pieces that part ways for the angel’s arrival), while his sound design is simultaneously soaring and haunting with its shrewd selection of classical compositions.
Tyler Duenow’s lighting underscores both poignant and lively moments in the script, while Alexandra Scibetta Quigley’s costumes are a match for each of the characters. Kudos also are in order for production manager Jay Hall and assistant director Nikki Lott for their determined efforts.
Ultimately, Stray Dog’s vaunted undertaking of both parts of Kushner’s milestone achievement is theater of the rarest order and something that aficionados of live performances shouldn’t miss.
Play: Angels in America, Part Two: Perestroika
Group: Stray Dog Theatre
Venue: Tower Grove Abbey, 2336 Tennessee Avenue
Dates: May 3, 4, 5, 17, 18, 19
Tickets: $18-$20; contact 865-1995 or StrayDogTheatre.org
Rating: A 4.5 on a scale of 1-to-5 for Perestroika, a 5 for the entire, two-part presentation
Photos courtesy of John Lamb