SALT LAKE CITY — Part I of Tony Kushner‘s Angels in America: Millennium Approaches drops the audience into an anxiety addled New York City in the 1980s. While the AIDS crisis spreads, an apocalyptic fear seems to be settling in with it. Like any revelation, it upends the lives of the poor and the powerful alike. In Kushner’s telling of that moment, the legendary lawyer Roy Cohn is diagnosed with AIDS in the same week as Prior Walter, a drag queen. Their unique end of life struggles are intersected by Joe and Harper Pitt. The Pitts’ Mormon marriage is failing in the face of his struggle with his sexuality and her addiction to pain killers. As these and other lives weave together, Kushner provides more than three hours of lush language, rich characters, and a macabre balance of humor.
At its 1993 premiere, the script was awarded with every honor that could be granted by the theatre world. Thirty years later, Millennium Approaches has even more to say about our nation’s legacy, our evermore precarious balancing act of freedom and justice, as well as the obligations of love that bind us to one another. Angels has the rare and powerful ability to be both epic and spacious in its themes, as well as intimate and tender with its very human characters.
It is no wonder then that the ambitious Kallisti Theatre Company has been drawn to the play. She and her cast and crew of a dozen folks are clearly giving their all in the face of significant budget restrictions. They are each making a valiant effort to capture this play’s power on the small stage of the Box Theater at the Gateway.
The program credits no scenic or costume designers, and that lack is apparent. Angels exists in a very particular moment in American history, when the outward distinctions of money, politics, gender, and sexuality existed had specific demands on the way that people looked and acted. When those requirements were not clear in the staging, I found myself overly distracted from the action, as I wondered about the origin of strange costume pieces, or the mechanics of the set, rather than being able to lose myself in the story and performances. The actors are hampered by the shoestring nature of the production as well.
For the most part, the performers handle trading off multiple roles and staging duties with dexterity. I was particularly impressed with Jeff Stinson‘s turn as a ghost when he stepped out of his leading role as the tortured Joe Pitt. But another moment fell sadly flat when Elise Hanson, who is already wearing too many hats as producer, director, and acting in the leading role of Harper, also filled the role of a rabbi in the opening scene. As Harper, Hanson expresses deep vulnerability and a sorrow that cannot be buried behind any amount of Valium. However, her portrayal of a rabbi in the opening moments set a strange tone. The rabbi comes across as camp rather than a character, complete with a cartoonish beard and an exaggerated mincing walk.
Another foible is the vocal volume from the otherwise brilliant Paul Sonnier, Jr. Playing the persistently kind Belize, Sonnier has a gravity and authenticity of manner on stage that set him a cut above the rest of the cast. But in his most pivotal scene, I could barely make out his dialogue over the squeaking of the chair he sat in. Another cast standout is Jon Turner as the historical figure of Roy Cohn. Turner aptly displays the bombast of a man with far too much confidence and the world at his feet.
In spite of the scruples in production quality I have raised, the moments of raw beauty and wonder in Angels in America: Millennium Approaches left my heart aching and my mind pondering. The script and structure of the play shine in the loving care of these artists. Kallisti Theatre Company is offering Salt Lake audiences the rare chance to enjoy this new American classic. I very much look forward to part II, Perestroika, which will be offered in December with the same cast.