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Angels in America

The Journeymen

at European Repertory Company

By Albert Williams

“Very Steven Spielberg,” gasps the prophetic gay AIDS patient in Tony Kushner’s Angels in America as the rumbling approach of a winged messenger causes the walls of his New York apartment to shake. In the 1993 Broadway premiere of Kushner’s “gay fantasia on national themes,” the moment was Spielbergian indeed, transforming the stage of the Walter Kerr Theatre into a three-dimensional movie screen.

Such a sensational scene helped hype the show to be sure, but at a cost. George C. Wolfe, the New York director, may have been correct to claim that cinematic special effects were necessary to sell a nonmusical–especially one this thematically complex–in a Broadway marketplace increasingly dedicated to spectacle over content. But Wolfe’s sprawling production missed much of the essence of Kushner’s script, while technical costs helped make the show a Broadway money loser despite all the publicity and awards. When the touring version, directed by Michael Mayer, opened at Chicago’s Royal George Theatre the following year, it was leaner and less expensive, probing the subtleties of Kushner’s six-hour, two-part epic with much greater sensitivity.

Now the Journeymen’s beautifully acted, low-budget production offers even stronger proof that less is more. Eschewing almost any hint of large-scale spectacle, this black-box staging comes closer to the heart of Kushner’s moving, funny work than either the New York or national version. The audience sits on either side of a plain black floor, on the same level as or just a little above the actors, an arrangement that fosters a sense of shared experience between performers and viewers. There are no sets, just black drapes and a few pieces of furniture: a chair and a table, a park bench and a hospital bed. When an angel “flies” onstage, it’s atop a rolling stairway (to paradise, I suppose). In such an intimate atmosphere there’s no room for phony dramatics or eye-popping images. But the consistently stark vision and compellingly honest and versatile performances of this production–directed by cast member David Cromer “and the company”–expose the simple, vulnerable humanity at the center of Kushner’s often fantastical tale of life and love in a time of cosmic change.

Written in the late 80s and early 90s–and constructed from two full-length plays, Millennium Approaches and Perestroika, which run in rotating repertory–Angels in America takes place in an era marked by political fervor, sexual anxiety, moral confusion, and intimations of apocalypse. In keeping with its underlying theme of movement and change, the action roams wide: from Salt Lake City to Brooklyn Heights; from the Mormon visitors’ center in midtown Manhattan to the Kremlin in Moscow; from the streets of the Bronx, where homeless people warm cans of soup over trash-can fires, to a heaven abandoned by God and populated by black-robed angels who yearn for the Lord’s return like a one-man woman looking for the man that got away.

It’s the mid-1980s, and while the “Reagan revolution” has created the illusion that “America has rediscovered…its sacred position among nations,” as one character puts it, a mysterious plague called AIDS is striking down gay men before their time. Among them is Prior Walter, a sometime drag queen and descendant of the pilgrims who journeyed to the New World to escape persecution. Prior’s boyfriend, Louis Ironson, is also the descendant of religious refugees–Russian Jews. An elderly rabbi tells mourners at Louis’s grandmother’s funeral, which opens Millennium Approaches, “You can never make that crossing that she made….But every day of your lives the miles that voyage between that place and this one you cross….In you that journey is.”

When Prior is diagnosed with AIDS-related cancer, Louis–a passionate critic of society’s ills but a coward when it comes to a fellow human’s infirmities–moves out, leaving his lover to suffer alone. Prior soon begins taking astral journeys to the home of Harper Pitt, a pill-popping manic-depressive whose husband, Joe, is a Mormon Republican lawyer–and a closeted homosexual. (Joe’s Mormonism represents yet another migrant legacy in this “melting pot where nothing melted.”) While Harper and Prior console each other over the loss of the men they love, the guilt-ridden Joe finds romance with the liberal Louis, who terms their politically improbable union “an ideological leather bar.”

Meanwhile Joe’s friendship with Roy Cohn, the real-life attorney and conservative power broker who died of AIDS in 1986, introduces a surreal side of American politics. Roy is the epitome of right-wing hypocrisy, an anti-Semitic Jew and gay-baiting closet queen who brags of bringing his tricks to White House dinners yet threatens to sue his doctor for diagnosing him with a gay-identified disease (he insists it’s liver cancer). Confined to a hospital (where he demands “a real phone, with a hold button”), Roy fears death far less than he does disbarment, which he faces as the result of unethical dealings with a client. Roy hopes to make Joe his protege–as Roy was to Senator Joseph McCarthy in the heyday of the Red scare–but Joe’s emerging sexuality takes him down a different path.

Focusing on this troubled quintet, Kushner weaves variations on a central motif, the biblical account of Jacob’s wrestling match with an angel–even after being disabled by his otherworldly opponent, Jacob refuses to surrender until he’s granted a divine blessing. Drawing on the scholarship of literary critic Harold Bloom, Kushner identifies that blessing as “more life”–and his characters struggle mightily toward that goal. Each of the five has his or her own encounters with angels, whether human or divine. Roy is visited by the spirit of Ethel Rosenberg–the spy he helped convict with illegal backroom dealings–who issues the millennial warning that “history is about to crack wide open.” Roy’s other angel is Belize, a gay black nurse who verbally wrestles him–only here, in a twist on the Old Testament tale, it’s Roy who gives Belize the blessing of “more life,” sharing his secret stash of AIDS-fighting AZT. Harper, meanwhile, takes mind trips to Antarctica in the company of Mr. Lies–the fallen angel Lucifer passing himself off as a hipster travel agent. And when Joe confesses his homosexuality to his mother, Hannah, she leaves Utah and moves to New York, where she becomes a guardian angel to both Harper and Prior.

Most important, though, is the winged woman who comes crashing into Prior’s home–an emanation of his feminine essence, bringing him a mission of prophecy. It’s a mission he ultimately rejects: the prophecy is of apocalypse, and what Prior wants is not salvation but survival.

Are these supernatural journeys and angelic visitations supposed to be real, or are they just the dreams and delusions of people muddled by illness, drugs, and soul-deep sorrow? Kushner fudges the question with clever double casting: Prior’s angel is played by the same actress who portrays his hospital nurse; Belize doubles as Mr. Lies; Hannah turns up as Ethel Rosenberg. This simple device combines cost cutting with thematic significance: it reminds us that for all its expansive metaphysics, Angels in America is finally just a play, an act of make-believe performed by mere human beings, imperfect creatures of skin and hair and muscle, for others like themselves. It is this sense of human physicality and frailty that the Journeymen’s spare staging brings out, relying almost entirely on acting rather than design. The production’s few technical effects are impressive, however. Charles Jolls’s lighting, ranging from frantically flashing reds to the illumination of a single naked white bulb to total darkness, makes excellent use of the space. And the evocative sound design, by Nick Gibson and David Zerlin, ranges from a sweet, sad melody on a solo clarinet to the shrieking voices and thundering drums that announce the angel’s arrival.

But the acting is the focus, and considering the characters’ rapidly changing and escalating emotional states, the commitment, variety, and authenticity of the performances are impressive. The well-chosen ensemble features Cromer’s sourly self-absorbed, bitterly intelligent Louis; Natasha Lowe’s volatile and vivid Harper; Jeff Christian’s emotionally stifled lummox of a Joe; Annabel Armour’s eternally vindictive Ethel and flinty but vulnerable Hannah; and the statuesque Elizabeth Laidlaw’s simultaneously ethereal and powerful angel.

But two brilliant performances give the play a special urgency. One is John Judd’s cunningly nasty, desperately driven Roy Cohn–a snarling, cornered rat of a man fascinating in his foulmouthed ferocity, weirdly engaging in his raunchy bravado, yet monstrous in his ruthless egotism, possessed by an almost erotic worship of brute strength and terrified of losing his power to disease and disgrace. The other is Scott Parkinson’s graceful, beautifully modulated Prior. With his piercing eyes and fine, fair, aristocratic features, Parkinson looks the part of a Puritan-descended prophet torn between earthly and divine impulses, and his expressive voice makes every line resonate with multilayered meaning. In the past Parkinson has sometimes succumbed to shrill stereotype when portraying a gay character. But here he strikes not a false note as he negotiates his role’s extraordinary range, from bitchy wit to pneumonia-racked panic, from astonished terror to orgasmic ecstasy, from howling terror to the humble dignity with which he pleads for “more life” for himself and his–our–race, as the play that began with a eulogy builds to a benediction.

Performed in the assembly hall of the Wellington Avenue United Church of Christ–a space that has long accommodated adventurous off-Loop theater, from the Chicago City Players’ mid-60s stagings of Megan Terry and Jean-Claude van Itallie to the work of its current resident troupe, the European Repertory Company–the Journeymen’s Angels in America is a fine way for audiences to experience this densely allusive, richly textured play, whether for the first time or on a return visit. Indeed, viewers already familiar with Kushner’s masterpiece may be especially impressed with the new perspectives this passionate young cast brings to it, proving that money is not the key to quality and that scale is no substitute for substance.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): uncredited theater still.