Saint Mary's Offers a Stirring "Angels in America"

In the 20 years since "Angels in America" was first performed, it has won recognition as one of the most influential works in modern American theater. The superb production mounted by director Reid Davis at Saint Mary's College gave audiences a chance to see why the play is as provocative today as when it was new.

As performed at the LeFevre Theatre, part one of "Angels in America," subtitled "Millennium Approaches," juxtaposes pointed political observations and deeply felt human drama, stark staging and fantastical special effects, drag queen comedy and wrenching pathos. The result is a lively, thought-provoking performance.

And the moral and societal questions posed by the characters as they struggle to deal with AIDS, homosexuality, identity, faith and responsibility make it a particularly appropriate choice for Saint Mary's, a college with a strong commitment to social justice. Combined with "Part II, Perestroika," which was given a staged reading, it is a striking presentation of the work by Tony Kushner, which has won two Tony Awards and a Pulitzer Prize.

The play's conflicts revolve around two couples whose lives intersect in the mid-1980s, at the height of the AIDS epidemic. Prior Walter is a gay man abandoned by his boyfriend, Louis Ironson, when he reveals that he has AIDS. And Joe Pitt is a Mormon Republican lawyer who abandons his wife, Harper, once he realizes that he's gay. He is being courted to work for the corrupt, hypocritical Roy Cohn, based on the real-life lawyer, who died of AIDS. Their very human drama is played out against the backdrop of a greater abandonment -- the spiritual void the playwright saw in America at the time.

Much has changed since "Angels in America" premiered. In the early 1990s, the AIDS epidemic was still viewed as a deadly plague, and the national hysteria over the disease was still fresh. Preachers pronounced it God's punishment for homosexuality, and people with AIDS were barred from entering the United States.

Although gays still struggle today for equal rights and full acceptance, the sense of urgency over the AIDS epidemic that gave birth to "Angels in America" has waned. Rather than making the play less relevant, however, the passage of time has had the effect of bringing forward the universal concerns in the piece that touch us all.

On a political level, the play still challenges us to move beyond intolerance to acceptance--and beyond that, to a sense of caring community. But it is the personal conflicts that are most compelling in the Saint Mary's production. They raise important questions, questions like:

What do we do when our whole world splits open?
How do we remain true to ourselves without hurting those we love.
What is our duty to our fellow human beings?
How do we make moral choices in a world cut off from belief, a world where, as Louis says during one of his high-octane diatribes, "there are no angels in America."

The search for answers takes us on some shocking emotional and theatrical journeys as the play jumps from San Francisco to New York to hallucinatory realms, including an imaginary trip to Antarctica. The staging is just as imaginative, marked by stunning juxtapositions that underscore the characters' shared humanity. One of the most memorable examples is a emotionally-charged scene played out on a set furnished with side-by-side beds in which Prior confronts Louis about his abandonment and Hannah confronts Joe about his betrayal. It's theater at its most powerful.

Although the play often paints a dark picture of America, its imagery and poetic language convey an underlying sense of hope that the characters, and the nation, will find a way to move beyond their human frailties and betrayals and find their way to love and compassion, or as the flamboyant drag queen Belize puts it, "softness, compliance, forgiveness, hope."

The music create an evocative soundscape, and the production design provided a perfect backdrop for the play's constantly shifting action. The stage was barren except for a wall painted with the image of soiled American flag and punctuated with a single door. True to Kushner's desires, all the special effects were out in the open for the audience to see. Lights illuminated a snow-making machine, props were moved around in half-light, and the Angel made a suitably shocking deus ex machina entrance.

The Saint Mary's actors bring the characters vividly to life. Davis says that the students "embraced the play at the deepest levels. Rather than worrying about what their friends might think of them playing someone gay, or Mormon, they immediately engaged some of the more profound spiritual and personal questions: what happens when your world falls apart, or your marriage collapses, or you find out you're going to die at a very young age."

Cyle Swanstrom as Prior Walter delivers a tour de force and manages to embody all he moods of the play in his character. He deftly switches back and forth between arch wit, pointed political observations, the wrenching agony of his disease, the pathos of lost love and abandonment, and awestruck wonder at his hallucinations, including the manifestation of the Angel. Ryan McCue, as Louis Ironson, progresses over the course of "Millennium Approaches" from an intellectually astute but morally ambivalent young man to one haunted by self-loathing as he begins to truly know himself.

Andrew Galindo's portrayal of Roy Cohn is a fully fleshed-out character -- crass, power hungry and hypocritical but still vulnerable in his need for love. Liam Callister's understated Jimmy Stewart-style performance slowly reveals the complexity of Joe Pitt, the closeted gay Mormon lawyer, as he struggles to prove that he is "a good man," as he says, even though his homosexuality flies in the face of his faith and his marriage vows. As Harper Pitt, Joe's cast-off wife, Hannah Brunner makes us believe in her drug-induced flights of fancy and, over time, allows us realize why she wants to flee reality. Her soliloquy in an imaginary South Pole, where she goes "to heal," is particularly moving.

All of the supporting actors turn in wonderful, quirky performances, including Kathleen Esling, who plays four roles, including the real-life Ethel Rosenberg, and Francesca Crebassa in her cameo as Sister Ella Chapter. Everett Lacey as Belize, the only character who never deserts Prior as he struggles with his terrifying disease, is a smart, sassy, sympathetic delight.

Just as the play has a profound effect on audiences, it also had a profound effect on the student actors. McCue says he was excited and proud to be a part of this production because "the play has been such a mechanism for change" and adds: "It's time for my generation now to take the reins."

Teresa Castle
College Communications