In the 1980s, Pulitzer Prize-winning writer Tony Kushner worked at The Repertory Theatre of St. Louis. There, at the start of the AIDS epidemic, Kushner perhaps first conceived his Tony Award-winning drama Angels in America: A Gay Fantasia on National Themes, usually shortened to Angels in America.
Now, after winning back-to-back Tonys for Best Drama in 1992 and ’93 for Millennium Approaches and Perestroika, the twin tales in his epic saga, Kushner’s marathon work makes its premiere at The Rep under the 53-year-old company’s new Augustin Family Artistic Director, Hana S. Sharif.
That makes a daunting way for Sharif to succeed the worthy Steve Woolf, but she seems up to the task. Sharif, who was selected to replace the retiring Woolf in July 2018, came to The Rep from Baltimore Center Stage, where she’d served as associate artistic director since 2014.
Prior to that, she was involved professionally with Connecticut’s Hartford Stage from 2003 to 2012, advancing from entry-level artistic assistant to associate artistic director, as well as serving as director of new play development. After that, Sharif became program manager at ArtsEmerson, a world theater company based at Boston’s Emerson College, before heading to Baltimore.
In a Rep interview with Sharif in July 2018, shortly after her selection as the troupe’s eventual new artistic director, she was asked, “Who are some contemporary playwrights whose work you admire?” She cited a new play by Matthew Fernandez titled The Inheritance, calling it “truly astonishing. I think the comparisons that we keep hearing to Angels in America are not hyperbolic. When that play comes to America, it’s going to revolutionize and reinvigorate the American theater.”
Angels in America did precisely that more than 25 years ago, and perhaps Sharif kept that in mind while scheduling her first season. She and her colleagues unveil their ambitious production when Angels in America: Millennium Approaches officially opens The Rep’s season on Friday, Sept. 6. It will rotate in repertory with Angels in America: Perestroika, which runs from Sept. 13 to Oct. 6. Tickets for both productions can be obtained by calling The Rep’s box office at 314-968-4925.
While the two parts of Angels in America premiered in 1991 and ’92, respectively, Kushner continued to update and refine his original script, which won the Pulitzer for Drama in ’93. The Rep is presenting the version used in the Broadway and West End revivals in 2018.
Angels in America tells a sweeping story set in the ’80s that blends the real (AIDS, notorious attorney Roy Cohn, once an assistant to the infamous Sen. Joseph McCarthy), the supernatural (angels, the ghost of Ethel Rosenberg, whose execution for spying occurred during the McCarthy era and the U.S. House Committee on Un-American Activities) and the fictitious (Prior Walter, last descendant of a long-lasting WASP family, and closeted homosexual Mormon Joe Pitt).
Sharif and her colleagues have assembled an impressive cast for The Rep’s debut Angels presentation. Meredith Baxter, star of five TV series in nearly 50 years as a professional performer, portrays Joe’s mother, Hannah. Barrett Foa, who anchors the presentation as the AIDS-stricken Prior, has starred for 11 seasons in the hit CBS series NCIS: Los Angeles as tech geek Eric Beale.
Peter Frechette, as Cohn, twice has been nominated for Tonys, while Ben Cherry, who portrays Prior’s abandoning lover, Louis, has toured nationally in the musical Mary Poppins. Jayson Speters plays Joe, Valeri Mudek portrays Joe’s depressed wife, Harper, David Ryan Smith is Prior’s friend and former lover Belize and Gina Daniels plays the eponymous Angel.
Sharif’s first season will later feature the recent Broadway hit The Lifespan of a Fact from Oct. 16 to Nov. 10 and a new adaptation of Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice as the holiday show from Dec. 4 to 29. The Mainstage season continues Jan. 8 to Feb. 2 with Mojada: A Medea in Los Angeles, a reimagining of Euripides’ ancient Greek tragedy, Medea; a campy comedy, The Mystery of Irma Vep, from Feb. 12 to March 8, and a world-premiere musical, Dreaming Zenzile, performed by international music sensation Somi and based on the life of South African singer Miriam Makeba, from March 18 to April 12.
The Rep’s Studio Theatre season opens with the horror tale Feeding Beatrice from Oct. 30 to Nov. 17, just in time for Halloween. The comedy The Thanksgiving Play runs from Jan. 22 to Feb. 9, and from March 11 to 29, the Studio season closes with a contemporary work, The Cake, in which a religious baker is asked to make a cake to celebrate her daughter’s marriage to another woman.
“I set out to program a season that would reflect the indomitable spirit of St. Louis, while building on The Rep’s incredible legacy,” says Sharif. “I view this season as the beginning of a long conversation with St. Louis, embracing our hopes and our dreams, our joy and our pain, our healing and our humanity. One that poses new questions while also reaffirming what has made The Rep so essential for more than 50 years.” [LN dingbat]
The Repertory Theatre of St. Louis, 130 Edgar Road, St. Louis, 314-968-4925, repstl.org