Theatre Review: ‘Angels in America: Millennium Approaches’ at Actor’s Express

In the Afterward to his titanic “Angels in America,” playwright Tony Kushner writes: “There’s no point in pretending that “Angels in America” is the work of a self-effacing person. The grandiose side of my character is, I hope, reasonably balanced against an overly vigilant superego with a mean right hook.”

Mr. Kushner need not be so modest. His acclaimed work, now 25-years-old, has not only stood the test of time; it has gained even more relevance, power, and an unearthly prescience.

“Part One: Millennium Approaches” opened on Broadway in 1993 to unprecedented critical acclaim and a Pulitzer Prize; “Part Two: Perestroika” followed several months later; still more accolades. I was fortunate enough to see both parts with the original casts. In 2003 there was a six-hour production on HBO starring Meryl Streep and Al Pacino; it won countless awards.

Last year Great Britain’s National Theatre presented a triumphant revival (also filmed for special one-night showings) which will transfer to Broadway next month for a brief run. Of this latest production the NYTimes’ Ben Brantley writes that it “confirms its place in the pantheon of dramas that stretch toward the heavens. No work of theatre has quite matched its reach.”

I tell you all this to let you know that “Angels in America” is a work with a unique pedigree. And now Atlanta’s Actor’s Express is staging their own version (both parts, usually on separate nights; check their schedule), running through Feb. 17. “Part One: Millennium Approaches” opened last week. It is remarkable.

If you’re not familiar with the work, I’ll simply say that “Angels” is about America’s spiritual dislocation in the age of AIDS. It is set in New York City in 1985, when the plague was terrorizing the nation. No one who lived through the early days of the epidemic can ever forget them. “I had not thought death had undone so many,” wrote T. S. Eliot in “The Waste Land.”

The leading role is a gay man named Prior Walter (Grant Chapman) who has AIDS; death, terror, denial, and hypocrisy are rampant. Prior is afraid, but he’s spunky. He is at once witty, feisty, flamboyant, and tragic. He has gumption; he is, above all, human—really a microcosm of the human race, an Everyman. The audience must care about him, and thanks to Mr. Chapman’s heartfelt portrayal, we do. It’s thrilling to see Mr. Chapman stand in his sickbed as the Angel (Parris Sarter) appears and say: “I can handle pressure, I am a gay man and I am used to pressure, to trouble, I am tough and strong!”

When Prior’s lover Louis (Louis Greggory) leaves him because of fear and panic (no one knew for sure in 1985 how AIDS was contracted, and there was no cure; there still isn’t, only better treatment), we’d like to hate Louis, but we can’t. We see too much of ourselves in Louis’ frightened, convoluted thinking—and Louis changes, as do all well-written characters in great plays. He’s also full of Jewish guilt and a certain intellectual piety. Mr. Greggory plays a difficult role with aplomb.

Harper (Cara Mantella) and Joe (Joe Sykes). Photo by Casey Gardner

There’s another couple in the play: Joe Pitt (Joe Sykes) and his wife Harper (Cara Mantella). They are a young Mormon couple, ostensibly conservative (Joe’s a Reagan-admiring Republican), but Joe’s in the closet and Harper is a Valium-popping, agoraphobic young woman. She also makes hallucinatory visits to the “ozone layer” in Antarctica. She suspects that Joe is gay.

Belize (Thandiwe DeShazor) is a nurse and an old friend of Prior’s. Like several actors, he plays more than one part. His Belize is perhaps the most accomplished, fully realized portrait of the evening. One of the highlight scenes for me is a fervent, funny, fascinating argument he has with Louis; Belize, who is black, accuses Lewis of racism, and Lewis accuses Belize of being anti-Semitic. It’s a brilliantly written scene, and Mr. DeShazor and Mr. Greggory make the most of it.

If there is a villain in the piece, it would be Roy Cohn (Robert Bryan Davis), a successful New York attorney and power broker. He is based on the real Roy Cohn, the one who in days of yore served as a sort of mentor to the current U.S. President. As abhorrent as Roy can be, he also fascinates, like a king cobra.

When we first meet Roy, he’s entertaining Joe while simultaneously manning the phones in his office, a practice he has made into an art form. He says he can make some calls and get Joe, a law clerk, an important job in Washington. Roy has contempt for the apparent powerlessness of gay people, yet (surprise) he’s gay himself. Mr. Davis, like most of the actors on opening night, gets stronger as the play progresses.

Joe’s Mormon mother is Hannah, played by the always estimable Carolyn Cook, who also plays more than one part. Ms. Cook’s presence is great boon to the evening. Ms. Mantella’s Harper is also very fine; hers is a tricky, quirky role. There’s no character quite like Harper in American drama. But then, that is true of all the people in this play.

The direction is by Freddie Ashley and Martin Damien Wilkins. The scenic designer is James Ogden, who has created a fascinating set. The entire theatre reminds me of a rocket ship, perhaps one zipping Harper to Antarctica; or more important, transporting us all to a new consciousness, a new cosmology, a new political and human awareness; and hopefully, a new compassion.

But it may be too late. In arguing with Belize, Louis, in a nihilistic moment, says: “There are no gods here, no ghosts and spirits in America, there are no angels in America, no spiritual past, no racial past, there’s only the political.” Is he right? Mr. Kushner asked us that in 1993, and he’s asking us that today.

Belize (Thandiwe DeShazor) and Prior (Grant Chapman). Image courtesy We Monsters. 

By the way, the play is just over three hours long and has two intermissions. Seeing this great work requires a certain commitment on the part of the audience—one that is richly rewarded. The pace and power of the play increases as it goes on; this was certainly true opening night. I think some of the scenes could be better lit; the actors’ faces are all-important.

This is a play for adults and older young people; there is a bit of nudity, simulated sex, and strong language. There’s also a lot of humor—imagine that.

This is a play for those who want to decide, as Mr. Ashley says in program notes—What do you want America to become? What are you going to do about it?

“Angels in America—Part One: Millennium Approaches” is too cosmic a work to miss. And Part Two is coming; check the theatre’s schedule.

For tickets and inforamtion, visit actors-express.com.

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