Back in 2004 and 2005, The Stranger's theater section was edited by Annie Wagner, who was both loved and feared for her unflinchingly sharp mind and apparently congenital inability to suffer fools. (She eventually left us to attend law school at the University of Chicago.) After seeing Intiman's current production of Angels in America: Millennium Approaches and reading Rebecca Brown's historical-minded review, in which Ms. Brown argues that Angels has wrongly lodged in the American consciousness as "the AIDS play," and the definitive story of the epidemic in the '80s, Ms. Wagner offered to write a response. Part two of Tony Kushner's epic, Angels in America: Perestroika, opens this weekend. —Eds.
If "the AIDS play" seems like a weird way to refer to Tony Kushner’s “gay fantasia” then great, we’re on the same page. I can sympathize with Rebecca Brown’s statistical-political* critique of Angels in America on a certain level—canons can be almost invisible to those outside academia, but they powerfully shape our cultural memories. That said, I’m not sure anyone is misremembering the response of the gay community to AIDS in the 1980s because of the fragile 20th-century humans in this hypercolored, ozone-obsessed swoon of a play. And any danger of ACT UP being forgotten is foreclosed by the way its many offspring from the WTO to Ferguson reproduce the same agitprop structures and strategies.
Director Andrew Russell’s Angels in America: Millennium Approaches is faithful, most of all, to the play’s gorgeously charged empathy. Here, too, I differ from Rebecca—Adam Standley’s Prior is not purely a lesioned victim, an object of pity. He suffers, but much of it is the eminently relatable suffering of a person being dumped for selfish reasons, a person who dreams of different endings, a person who maybe has it too easy until suddenly he has it too hard. It’s Standley’s pitch-perfect performance (with, by the way, superb melancholy drag for a 30-year-old of whatever orientation) that carries Millennium’s emotional climax: a straight-laced dance fantasy made of nothing but beauty and delusion. That scene breaks your heart so thoroughly you’re as primed for an angelic visitation as Prior is. (I shouldn’t omit to mention this production’s sound and lights, by Matt Starritt and Robert Aguilar, respectively, which do a lot of subtle and not-so-subtle emotional lifting.)
Many of the other performances here walk a line between offering more truthful, lower-voltage versions of Kushner’s occasionally problematic characters and simply underselling the goods. Overall, it works. I adored Charles Leggett’s handsy Roy Cohn, who is about as self-possessed as an earthbound demon can get; Ty Boice is perfectly opaque as the closeted Mormon lawyer Joe and funny as one of Prior’s ancestors. Timothy Piggee gets credit for trying to tug the wise queen Belize down a notch, and he was great in a preview I saw, but in a performance I caught later in the run he seemed drained of energy as well as sass. As Prior’s sometime boyfriend Louis, Quinn Franzen is fun to hate, though he lacks a certain sexual heat.
Then there’s Harper, the sex-starved, agoraphobic Mormon housewife, who even in written form is less a character than a pathetic vehicle for Kushner’s idea of poetry. Ideally, the audience forgets the character’s unpleasant hysteria and gets swept up in the not-entirely-unreasonable anxiety she’s expressing on behalf of the playwright and the entire late 20th century. Here, though, Alex Highsmith fights Harper’s blues with an ironic edge to her voice and a general air of goofiness. Those monologues packed with thematic acrobatics still suffuse and elevate the harsher aspects of the play, but you have to work to process them.
But if Angels is slightly more earthbound than you might have hoped, the emotional impact is still stunning. I will not deny the play’s shortcomings, but its scope and fearlessness open the door to the kind of powerful live performance that only comes around once in a while. Forgive any political quibbles and see the damn show.
* I also take issue with Rebecca on her ratios: I think we have to take Roy Cohn at his word re his Foucauldian not-a-homosexual monologue; there’s no use identifying him as one of the play’s “gay men.” Even if he has sex with other men, in the medical formulation, he’s more in the mold of a devil, a lizard, Milton’s Satan, Richardson’s Lovelace, than a mere human being—much less a member of a human subculture. So that’s one fewer self-loathing gay man. And then Rebecca forgets about Belize, who isn’t self-loathing, but is rather a selfless, caring gay man. So by my count, Angels proposes that two out of four gay men in the ’80s were self-loathing. Not so awful.