Angels In America : Part One, Millenium Approaches

By Tony Kushner
Directed by Oskar Eustis
At the Trinity Rep Theatre
Providence, RI May 26,1996

Reviewed by G.L. Horton

To those who have seen George Wolfe's Broadway production of "Angels in America, Part I-- Millennium Approaches", and found it the most satisfying theatrical experience of the last decade, this review may be hard to credit. The current production at Trinity Rep is even better-- so much better that it adds an extra metaphorical level to the play and raises it to an even higher plane. Given the rehearsal conditions under which most stage work is done in America, this Trinity "Angels" might even be the most fully realized staging of a contemporary script that is ever likely to be seen in this country. Anyone within commuting distance of Providence should make the pilgrimage. This production is so beautiful, so touching, that as I summon up the scenes in my memory in order to write about them, tears come rolling down my cheeks once more.

Director Oskar Eustis, who took over the reins at Trinity in 1994, was present at "Angels"'s creation. Eustis co-wrote the NEA grant application for the funds that commissioned the play. It was the actors in Eustis' Eureka company that Tony Kushner had in mind when he was writing the script, and Eustis directed the 1992 production at the Mark Taper Forum. The director was denied the opportunity to do the NYC premiere, and -- with whatever extra impetus that denial may have provided-- Eustis obviously has been thinking long and thinking hard about this play ever since. The production has the feel of a personal testament, an apologia pro vita sua.

The Trinity company of actors knew that they would be doing this play as soon as the rights became available, and they bring to it an experience all too rare in contemporary theatre, that of having worked together as a company over a period of many years. For them, too, it must represent some kind of demonstration. Just how good can a provincial troupe be? When the cast was announced, many of us who knew the demands of the script and thought we knew the limitations of the modestly-budgeted Rhode Island company had doubts. And indeed, some of the physical attributes brought to the script by this cast are, considered in the abstract, less than ideal. It might be better if the women who are playing male characters had darker voices and a more androgynous presence. It might be better if there were some way to do scene changes that did not include using ghostly specters in full Restoration drag as stagehands. But this is an instance where the whole is much more than the sum of the parts. The limitations make designer Eugene Lee's production more of a handicraft operation, and reinforce its human scale. The intimate three-quarter round playing area encourages subtile acting, while the visible audience members act as a reminder of the artifice, of the metaphorical nature of all performance. The ensemble works: each actor is lifted by the belief of all the others in the reality of the world created by their mutual imagination. The characterizations, based by choice or necessity on brilliantly detailed physical stereotypes, are balanced on the razor's edge of caricature, but so beautifully balanced that the focus is always on what is happening between them. They come to multidimensional life in their emotional transactions.

For those who haven't yet encountered Tony Kushner's remarkable "gay fantasia on American themes", here's a brief and partial description: "Angels" is set in New York in 1985, morning in Reagan's America and twilight for leftist ideals of enlightened solidarity. Louis Ironson (Ed Shea) attends the funeral of his grandmother Sarah, where the eulogy -- a cross between Borscht-belt stand-up and Martin Buber -- is spoken by an old Rabbi (Ann Scurria) who did not know Sarah except as a type, the immigrant Jewish mother who brought the shtetl of Old World with her to America, where now it is slipping from the consciousness of her assimilated descendants. Louis admits that he never visited his grandmother during her painful last years in the nursing home, and asks for consolation from the Rabbi: "What does the scripture have to say to such a person?" The Rabbi can offer none: "Catholics have confession: Jews have guilt."

But even from a priest Louis could not receive absolution, because rather than repenting his sin against one who loves him, he is about to repeat it. Louis' very WASPy partner, Prior Walter (Brian McEleny), has AIDS, and Louis knows that he hasn't the strength to stay with his lover through the ravages of the disease to the inevitable end. Louis explains his failure in Marxist terms: he can't deal with suffering except as a material condition cause by oppression. Limitless compassion is beyond him.

All that is set out in the first twenty minutes of a three and a half hour play, in some of the funniest dialogue ever written. According the famous dictum attributed to G.B. Shaw, "Life is a comedy to those who think and a tragedy to those who feel" Kushner's "Angels" is both, and profoundly political as well. The play is populated by seemingly ordinary stage characters: the gay couple Louis and Prior; a the Mormon lawyer, Joe (Fred Sullivan Jr. ) his down-to-earth mother, Hannah (Scurria) and his pill-popping wife Harper (Phyllis Kay); Belize (Allen Oliver), an African-American ex drag queen who is a nurse in the hospital where Prior is a patient -- all unusual only in that their personal histories as outsiders have forced them to reflect on their lives.

It also features one extraordinary "real" character, based on notorious right-wing lawyer Roy Cohn (Timothy Crowe), whose career arc illustrates the Mephistopholean nature of the American Dream. Cohn is the proud product of a rootless patriarchy, where winning isn't just everything, it's the only thing. And, like "Faustus" or "Cymbeline" , the play is also populated by supernatural characters -- hallucinations, ghosts, angels -- who confront the humans with knowledge beyond the scope of their personal histories. The script is packed with dramatic and comic circumstances that invite these characters to justify their actions to each other. It is propelled by an ambitious and explicit promise that an angelic messenger from heaven will reveal the significance of all this -- nothing less than the meaning of life. And it delivers.

Indelible moments: Louis in tears in the gent's washroom, desperately trying to make Marxist sense of the fact that a Republican lawyer is the only person humane enough to try to comfort him. The look on Joe's face when Louis suddenly kisses him. Louis and Belize in conversation at a cafe table, gestures equally extravagant but totally individualized, weaving a silent counterpoint to Louis's verbosity as he lets loose an ironic string of brilliant rationalizations which includes "There are no angels in America". Louis and Joe sitting on the ground and eating hot dogs. Prior in the middle of the night, crawling in agony across the bare floor in a single strip of light from an partially-opened door, pleading with the panicked Louis not to call an ambulance to take him away to the hospital to die. Roy Cohn drunk and sentimental with Joe at a bar, bobbing and weaving in seductive dance of manipulative paternalism. Hannah lost in New York, warming her hands at a burning trash barrel and trying to get directions from a homeless psychotic ( Janet Duclos). Harper out among the audience in the Antarctic snow of her fantasies, swathed in polar bear fur, gamboling in guiltless joy. Finally, the Angel (Jennifer Mudge Tucker) breaking through the ceiling, descending on bright wings in an avalanche of plaster and dust. But the angelic has been present on stage all along, in the loving detail of the performers' art.

Eustis refers to the Trinity Rep as a "Utopian community", meaning, I suppose, that in our competitive and commodified national culture, where theatre artists are usually migrant workers clinging with defensive pretension to the most marginal of careers, Trinity is the rare instance of an institution that has managed to give its artists the security, financial and emotional, to do their bravest and deepest work. One can only hope that the people of Rhode Island appreciate what a treasure they have, and that they will continue to give the company the support it deserves.