Angels In America: Millenium Approaches & Perestroika
A transcendent theatre experience
Written by Tony Kushner
Directed by Albert Schultz
"This disease will be the end of many of us, but not nearly all, and the dead will be commemorated and will struggle on with the living, and we are not going away. We won't die secret deaths anymore. The world only spins forward. We will be citizens. The time has come." Prior Walter, Angels in America
Tony Kushner's 1993 Pulitzer Prize-winning play Angels in America is as poignant and vividly real today as it was 20 years ago. The six-hour production is divided into two parts: Millenium Approaches and Perestroika, both of which are currently on stage at the Young Centre in a new production directed by Soulpepper's Albert Schultz.
Set in New York City during the AIDS crisis (1985-1986), the play examines the lives of seven individuals as they struggle against the injustices of life, love and politics. Their stories revolve around the centre character Prior Walter (Damien Atkins), a 30-year-old man with AIDS. We first meet Prior as he tells his partner, the self-absorbed Louis Ironson (Gregory Prest), about his grave prognosis. Terrified of this horrible reality, Louis abandons Prior in his time of need, embarking on his own journey of self-discovery with Joe Pitt, (Mike Ross), a closeted gay Mormon Republican (Reagan-era) who works in his law office.
Joe also happens to be friends with Roy Cohn (Diego Matamoros), a closeted gay lawyer who has AIDS but refuses to admit it. Roy's character is based on the real-life attorney Roy Cohn, famous for his involvement in Senator Joseph McCarthy's investigations into Communist activity. All about his reputation, Roy insists that he is not a gay man, he is not dying of AIDS but from liver cancer. Roy's nurse is Prior's best friend Belize (Troy Adams), a world weary, openly gay black man with plenty of experience treating people in this condition. Belize is Prior's main support, and a constant voice of reason throughout the play.
Another important character in Angels is Joe Pitt's wife Harper Pitt (Michelle Monteith), a paranoid housewife with a valium addiction that causes her to have recurring hallucinations. These fantasies are far from fiction however; one vision, involving an otherworldly encounter with Prior, opens her eyes to the fact that her husband is a homosexual, a revelation that eventually jolts her awake. At the same time, Joe drunkenly comes out to his mother on the phone, provoking Hannah Pitt (Nancy Palk) to sell her house in Salt Lake City and move to NYC. When Hannah arrives she finds that Joe is gone and Harper is lost, but there are plenty of other souls to be saved.
Then, of course, there is The Angel (Raquel Duffy), a voice that manifests in the form of a sensual winged messanger from heaven who visits Prior's bedside and convinces him that he is a prophet. By the end of part one, all of the characters' worlds have broken open, the Millenium Approaches, leaving them vulnerable to the powerful truth that is to come in Perestroika.
Schultz's production is utterly compelling throughout—a sweeping epic, magically staged and beautifully performed. Each cast member gives themselves completely to Kushner's insensely intellectual and heartbreaking script. Palk is remarkably dexterous in moving between roles—from a rabbi, to a Bolshevik to the ghost of Ethel Rosenberg, to the staunchly Mormon mother Pitt—she finds depth and humour in all of these personas. Matamoros also gives an outrageous performance as the horribly morose, yet laugh-out-loud funny, Cohn. His despicable character has some of the best lines in the play. Meanwhile, Atkins steals the show as the sensitive, soul searching Prior. These are award worthy performances to be sure.
Lorenzo Savoini's versatile set allows the cast to move fluidly between scenes and spaces, making for a riveting, fast-paced viewing experience despite the length of the production. Richard Feren's haunting sound design and Bonnie Beecher's moody lighting design add the finishing touches, bringing the world of Kushner's Angels to life with brilliant clarity.
With a forward-thinking message of hope and strength, this life-affirming story is a sacred piece of theatre well worth the two-part commitment. Take a leap of faith with this one, you only live once.
Angels in America runs until September 28 at the Young Centre for the Performing Arts. Visit soulpepper.ca for more information and to buy tickets.