Dallas — A solemn rabbi at the funeral of a Jewish grandmother steps stage center. “She carried the old world on her back across the ocean,” he says, his sonorous voice predicting that the voyages of her heirs will be different but no less resonant.
Images of death and life resound together in this telling opening scene of Tony Kushner’s 1993 Tony Award- and Pulitzer Prize-winning Angels in America: A Gay Fantasia on National Themes, the brilliant play about the AIDS epidemic that raged through the gay community in the ’80s during the Regan administration. The work set off tremors that reached across cultural, political and cosmic boundaries of our nation. With a singularly hate-torn campaign behind us and a still perplexing election, Angels seems more relevant than ever.
Now Uptown Players opens its new season with a wrenchingly intimate and powerfully physical production of Angels in America, Part One: Millennium Approaches. Cheryl Denson directs, with a pulsing forward rhythm that carries us swiftly from the opening burial, through the throbbing of desire and the terrors of pain to the astonishingly glorious flurry of feathered wings in the final scene.
This Angels is still a startling, heavenly trip you won’t want to miss, whether or not you saw the Dallas Theater Center production on the same stage 20 years ago, in Fort Worth at Stage West, or the star-studded 2003 HBO movie, directed by Mike Nichols. (Uptown Players plans to produce the second part, Perestroika next season.)
Kushner’s vision of the AIDS crisis focuses on two couples, whose lives intertwine in complex and sometimes supernatural ways, all played with such clarity we never lose track of who is appearing in who’s hallucination, dream or hospital room.
Prior (Garret Storms), a descendent of a long line of Puritans, has developed full-blown AIDS and experiences bizarre ghostly visits by his ancestors. Prior’s lover Louis (David Meglino), a Jewish leftist working at a Republican law firm, is torn between his real love for Prior and his revulsion for a man he’s deserting because, well, AIDS is nasty and Louis can’t stand to watch his lover suffer.
Joe (Kyle Igneczi), a bright-eyed young Republican and Mormon, is married to Harper (Marianne Galloway), a sex-hungry housewife reeling with Valium hallucinations and a strong suspicion that her husband yearns for a sexual experience of a kind she’s helpless to provide. Joe’s mother Hannah (a quick-tongued, determined Pam Dougherty) shows up from Salt Lake City in damage-control mode, and pushes all the wrong buttons.
As it turns out, Joe becomes the favorite of his boss Roy Cohn (David Lugo), a character based on the villainous New York lawyer who helped Senator Joe McCarthy send suspected Communists to the electric chair—and was a mentor of Donald Trump. Deeply closeted Roy is sick with AIDS, but calls it “liver cancer,” and continues his ugly, treacherous deceits.
The Greek maxim that “character is fate” is played out in Kushner’s intricate, funny and inevitable plot. Scene after intimate scene, we watch the characters sharpened and refined by the truth they have to face. They become who they are through what they behold; and sometimes it’s a vision of cosmic dimensions – and sometimes it’s a fiercely, comically brutal sex act in an alley.
The first-rate cast members, some doubling in minor roles, move fluidly and naturally in and around H. Bart McGeehan’s elegant geometric backdrop and elaborate video designs projecting cityscapes and canyon rims with precision.
Storms’ Prior, a handsome dirty blonde, evokes both pity and joy in his bravery despite his increasing feebleness, but also in his fearsome and funny dialogues with dead ancestors. Storms also excels in the truth-telling scenes with his best friend Belize (a gorgeous, tough-talking Walter Lee, in and out of drag), who stands by him when hope is thinning.
Meglino’s Louis is darkly handsome, virile and reckless. In a breakthrough performance, Meglino shows us the powerful chemistry that drives Louis to his slip-shod morality, seeking sex where he can find it, despite his blazing intellect and real love for Prior. “You can love someone and fail them,” he tells Prior, and a powerful theme of the play crystallizes in a flash.
Igneczi’s Joe, fresh-faced and innocent, is clearly a soul being pulled apart, forcing himself to embrace his wife and later being helplessly drawn to Louis in a funny, revealing urinal scene. Igneczi and Meglino project a magnetic attraction stronger than even their combined Mormon and Jewish hoards of guilt.
Galloway’s Harper makes you laugh so much you hurt. Loopy with Valium and determined to see the “hole in the ozone,” or desperate and begging for a love she must be denied, we feel the sadness and extension of the era’s homophobic scene through her struggle.
Lugo’s Roy is a tortured and evil man. Even when being witty and charming with young recruits, his face always suggests a hidden agenda. Bulldogging his way through life, he tells his own doctor how to diagnose his case. He’s the devil in the board room, seductive in his power and vicious when angry. Lugo’s final scene on all fours, sweating and panting like a tortured animal, is terror itself.
Emily Scott Banks is forthright and glowing appearance as the Angel, right when we need her most—what she portends for the second part of Angels in America is bigger than any TV series cliffhanger you can imagine.
The play runs just over three hours and includes two intermissions, but some works remind us that time is also a personal perception. Time flies when you’re carried away by the luminous words and fiercely passionate acting of this play. Absolutely not to miss.