SALT LAKE CITY — Going to a show at the Salt Lake Acting Company, for me, is always a delight so my hopes for their production of Angels in America: Millennium Approaches by Tony Kushner were high. For many years this has been one of my favorite plays and having the opportunity to finally see it live at one of my favorite venues had me very excited.
The choice to perform Angels in America in Salt Lake County is an interesting one. Given the show’s predominant themes of homosexuality, identity, religion (specifically Mormonism) and American politics, putting on this play now and in this space is particularly poignant. SLAC has produced the play once before, in 1995, and this time around the director Keven Myhre has created an entirely new way to experience and understand the text.
In my own academic interactions with the text, the focal point of the piece has always been the richness of the language. The propagandistic speeches and the richness of Kushner’s late 20th century poetry, for me, have always seemed to be the most important elements. In this production, Myhre decided to read against that grain and has placed great focus on the characters of the play and the way in which their stories intertwine. Rather than being symbolic representations, the characters in this production become fully rounded and their stories and their lives become the focal point.
Making such a strong conceptual choice is admirable of Myhre and there were times where my connection to these characters as people became very real. One such moment was a scene where the breaking relationship of Prior (Lucas Bybee) and Louis (Alexis Baigue) was paralleled on stage with the struggles of the marriage between Joe (Alexander Bala) and Harper Pitt (Christy Summerhays). More than simply showing the parallels between the hetero-normal and homosexual relationships, the honesty of the performance and the well-roundedness of the characters deeply affected me.
There were other moments however when I felt the richness of Kushner’s words were lost due to the directorial shift in focus. Several of Harper’s monologues, usually steeped in symbolism and imagery, seemed glazed over in order to express a deeper sense of character development and the focus was on her emotions rather than the evocative words. Another moment was the opening scene where Roy Cohn (Charles Lynn Frost) assaults Joe and the audience with an onslaught of well-crafted vulgarity, as poetic as it is crude. Rather than allow the audience to react to the words being said and to sink into the language of Cohn’s character we were directorially focused on the character interactions between Joe and Cohn.
The cast of the show was nothing short of stupendous. One of my favorite moments of the evening was a chilling and captivating monologue given by Roy Cohn (Charles Lynn Frost) as he confronts his doctor concerning his sexual identity. Another truly brilliant performance came from Christy Summerhays’ depiction of Harper’s valium addiction and crumbling marriage. The realism wrought in her performance was gut-wrenching and eerie and spoke to Summerhays’ abilities as an actress. Alexis Baigue presented us with a scared yet altogether likable Louis and Lucas Bybee’s interpretation of Prior was humorous, saddening and uplifting all at once. These two men are to be commended for their depiction of the complex relationship their characters face. Nell Gwynn, who played 4 roles v\during the show, (the Angel, Nurse Emily, Sister Ella Chapter and the South Bronx Woman) was simply terrific in giving her characters variety and the ability to stand alone as strong, individual characters.
While Myhre’s interpretation of Angels in America: Millennium Approaches was different from my own, all in all it is a good show. The performances are solid and live up to the high standards that I have come to expect from SLAC. Thematically, Angels in America is an extremely important piece of theatre for everyone to see. While this new production may strike differently than other productions or readings, it is an invaluable and thought-provoking play that I am glad I had the opportunity to experience.