Tony Kushner makes people want to pursue theater. In my grad school program in theater, it was not uncommon or surprising to hear someone say that after reading Angels in America they knew they wanted to go into theater, whether as a playwright, director, or otherwise. I admit that I fell into the same camp and once wrote Mr. Kushner a letter expressing that my desire to pursue theater was largely in response to his plays. So entering the Signature Theatre last night to see the revival of Kushner’s Angels in America: Millennium Approaches, I was filled with excitement but also uncertainty about whether a revival could fill the shoes of such a magnificent, large scale play. The Signature production exceeded all expectations. (At least Millennium Approaches did; I see Perestroika in a few weeks.) In the intimate space, the work took on epic dimensions as director Michael Greif deftly created a multi-faceted world of New York City apartments, hospital rooms, courthouses, and public parks. The Signature Theatre is devoting the 2010-2011 season to Kushner’s work and Angels in America has already received three extensions. Whether it will transfer to Broadway is still unknown but this production has proven that the large-scale work can be just as vibrant in a smaller theater.
The cast – from seasoned stage veteran Billy Porter to TV and movie star Zachary Quinto – brought a rich honesty to their roles and never shied away from exploring the dark and flawed attributes of their characters. This isn’t a play about pleasant people. But at its core are weathered souls desperate for connection, marked most poignantly by two central couples: one openly gay and the other ostensibly straight. As Frank Rich remarked in his 1993 review of the original production, “Angels in America becomes a wounding fugue of misunderstanding and recrimination committed in the name of love.”
The lighting design and set were phenomenal aids to this portrayal and created the wide breadth of starkly real environments and fantastical imaginings that the play demands. We feel the chill of Prior’s hospital room, the serenity of the courthouse steps, and the tension of Joe and Harper’s Brooklyn apartment.
Seventeen years after the play’s stage debut, its exploration of AIDS, faith, gay culture, and politics during the Reagan years now feel removed enough to be a true revival. Where AIDS is now a largely livable condition provided that one can afford adequate health care, in the universe of Angels, it was altogether new and so severely stigmatized that President Reagan famously never uttered the name of the disease until 1987, six years after the first cases of AIDS were reported.
The revival successfully transports us to that time: to the pervasive fear incurred by a mysterious epidemic and to the dark underbelly of America during a presidency marked by nationalism and prosperity.
Kushner has never feared tackling political movements. If anything, he embraces the most complex and unlikely of relationships that underscore the scope and polarization of America’s most volatile eras. And he does so with poetry and pathos that lift each story out of its historical milieu and achieve an unlikely timelessness. It’s unsurprising that he’s the playwright who launched a thousand artists.