Theatre Review: ‘Angels in America, Part Two: Perestroika’ at Actor’s Express

Grant Chapman in Angels in America (Photo by Casey Gardner)

We reviewed the first half of Tony Kushner’s monumental “Angels in America” last month, providing background for the play and all the characters and actors. Please refer to that review for a more complete understanding of  the work, directed by Freddie Ashley and Martin Damien Wilkins at Actor’s Express.

“Angels in America” continues its run through Feb 17 with the company now performing both “Part One: Millennium Approaches” and “Part Two: Perestroika,” usually on separate days. However, both parts are performed on the same day on some weekends; you must check the theatre’s schedule.

“Perestroika” literally takes us to the heavens and back; its scope is grand, cosmic, and transcendent. But it’s also achingly human, pointing out our foibles, cruelties, pettiness, and foolishness. Even though Kushner said “Perestroika” is essentially a comedy, he also cautioned “that the problems the characters face…are among the hardest problems: how to let go of the past, how to change and lose with grace, how to keep going in the face of overwhelming suffering. It shouldn’t be easy.”

“Part Two” is not easy on the audience either: It’s four hours long, including two intermissions. It requires commitment and concentration; but if you’re willing to give that, then you can soar, laugh, and experience a genuine catharsis.

To me there’s always a mystery about great works of art; a play this long and complex shouldn’t work in today’s digital world. But it does; Kushner’s genius and the fine actors here transport us. It makes me think of Hannah’s (Carolyn Cook) line to Prior (Grant Chapman), as she attempts to comfort him about his visions: “An angel is just a belief, with wings and arms that can carry you. It’s naught to be afraid of. If it lets you down, reject it. Seek for something new.”

I must tell you that I’m a little bit in awe of the actors: their talent, their stamina, their commitment to this gargantuan project is quite awe-inspiring.

Robert Bryan Davis in Angels in America (Photo by Casey Gardner)

I’ve mentioned them before, but here are a few more thoughts. Joe Sykes is playing Joe Pitt, a Mormon who is quite miserable with his life: He’s admitting his homosexuality, he’s leaving his wife, his mother is disgusted with him, his would be lover is repulsed by Joe’s political beliefs, and his mentor is dying of AIDS. It would be very easy for Mr. Sykes to descend into bathos, but he doesn’t. Instead he makes us empathize with his sorrow and bewilderment and tears. It’s a courageous, outstanding performance.

The central figure of the work is Prior Walter; as played by Grant Chapman he lifts us up, makes us laugh, and finally inspires us to tears. To me, one of the greatest moments in modern theatre is Prior’s final speech when he talks of gay people and AIDS; here’s an excerpt: “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.”

Parris Sarter as the Angel is properly magisterial with a booming voice that commands the room. I love the way she attempts to show humans that sexuality is not to be feared: “The Body is the Garden of the Soul.”

Robert Bryan Davis plays Roy Cohn, “the polestar of human evil,” and he spends most of the evening dying and certainly not going gently into that good night. Mr. Davis is quite ferocious in his portrayal, and it’s a personal triumph for him.

The greatest compliment I can give Carolyn Cook as Hannah (and others she plays) is that she makes me forget Meryl Streep (from the HBO version). Ms. Cook is divine.

I’ve mentioned their cast mates before, but they are Louis Greggory, Cara Mantella, and Thandiwe DeShazor. Each is a gem.

You could argue that the physical plant of the theatre is not grand enough to accommodate this gigantic work, but I shall not. “Angels in America” started in a small theatre in San Francisco. “An angel is a belief with wings,” remember?

I love Part One, but I love Part Two even more. Comparisons are odious, but sometimes they slip out.

One more thing—the theatre has free coffee for this production: a nice touch. The clock is ticking; see this great work.

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

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