By Minda Honey
Photos by Bill Brymer
Rising from our seats and making our way out of the theater, my sister asked me if the script for Actors Theatre’s production of “Angels in America, Part One: Millennium Approaches” had been updated. “No,” I told her. The play simply holds up—both a sign of Tony Kushner’s exceptionalism as a playwright and our troubling times.
Part One premiered in 1991 and Part Two followed a few years later. I first encountered the play more than a decade later in my early twenties as an undergrad at the University of Louisville. We watched the HBO special in one of my Humanities classes as a look at the AIDS epidemic. It left a mark on me. “Angels in America” is a play that asks the hard questions, reveals the hard truths, but also shows us that there are answers to be found in all of us.
Another decade and a handful of years has passed and “Angels in America” has moved me yet again. Actors Theatre’s Artistic Director, Les Waters, took the mic after the champagne toast on opening night and spoke about this play and its importance to his life experience in a way I’ve never heard him speak about any other play. Associate Artistic Director Meredith McDonough has said this play saved her life and every member of the cast has a deep connection to the play and their roles. Unlike the HBO special, you will laugh out loud throughout the entire play, which may come as a surprise to audiences given the subject matter.
The first part of Kushner’s two-part masterpiece takes place in 1985 in New York City. Audiences will follow the parallel and sometimes overlapping lives of Prior Walter (Mark Junek) who’s just revealed to his partner Louis Ironson (Richard Gallagher) that he has AIDS. Louis, who is Jewish, meets Joe Pitt (Brian Slaten) at work. Joe is Mormon and having marital problems with his wife Harper (Therese Barbato); the two seem to disagree about what is at the root of those problems (the fact that they refer to each other as “buddy” is definitely a clue). Harper is given to escapism fantasies with Mr. Lies (Richard Prioleau), who also doubles as Belize, close friend to Prior. Joe is offered a position in Washington, D.C. by the infamous lawyer Roy Cohn (Lou Liberatore), who served as a real-life mentor to a young Donald Trump. In typical Cohn fashion, the position comes with several strings attached. Cohn is also diagnosed with AIDS. As the first part nears its close, we meet Joe’s mother, Hannah Pitt (Barbara Walsh), who travels from Salt Lake City, Utah to be with her son in New York City. Rami Margron shows her range appearing in several different roles including Prior’s nurse, Hannah’s Salt Lake City realtor friend and smoke buddy, a homeless person warming their hands over a barrel fire and she ascends to celestial heights by the end of the play.
That may seem like a lot of people to keep straight, but I did mention that Kushner is a master of his craft, right? You’ll have no problem at all keeping the characters straight thanks to the strength of Kushner’s writing and the dedication and artistry of the cast who credits their all-star acting to McDonough’s ability to make the rehearsal room feel like a safe space. The work of William Boles, scenic designer, aided by lighting design by Isabella Byrd and Paul Toben also shines. There are beds gliding forward and retreating into recesses, park benches rising from beneath the stage, partitions sliding together and apart. Shifting lighting made it possible for dueling scenes to unfurl at the same time. And I must share my appreciation for the color palette of Alison Siple, costume designer; rich cranberries, reds, soft grays and deep navy.
“Part One: Millennium Approaches” will run through October 10 and “Part Two: Perestroika” opens September 19 and closes October 14. Tickets available now at actorstheatre.org. VT