Theater review: A bend of the wing to ‘Angels in America’

Portland Playhouse is calling all angels.

Tony Kushner’s “Angels in America” is now 20 years old, which is astonishing, because it still seems so fresh and such a provocation in so many ways.

One way I think of it? As a utopian proposal for how the art of theater ought to be conducted, a manifesto of sorts.  Utopias and manifestos are best at describing what is missing — from a society, from an art form, from the human heart. If we think of “Angels in America” as a utopian  project, it proposes a theater that is free to:

  • invoke angels
  • tell painful stories of personal betrayals
  • create predicaments that no one can get out of without some supernatural assistance
  • philosophize
  • recreate historical figures and involve them in hallucinations
  • talk about whatever it wants and anybody it wants to talk about
  • assume that people have sex and is willing to discuss and represent that sexuality frankly
  • wrestle with villains
  • situate complex gay or Jewish or African American characters squarely in the center of its action
  • get angry or sad
  • occupy the very center of American society with its representations and its implications

This theater can employ limited means, meaning that its stage effects can show reveal the very mirrors and wires that make them possible. That’s OK as long as it takes itself seriously (without abandoning its sense of humor), as long as it’s as smart as it can be, as long as it doesn’t back down or take the easy way out, because really that’s more painful than anything this theater has to say.

The brilliance of Kushner, of course, is that “Angels in America” doesn’t just propose this ideal: “Angels in America” is that theater in action in front of us. It’s not a description of a theater that might have important things to say but one that actually says important things.

This is a long introduction to Portland Playhouse’s production of “Angels in America: The Millennium Approaches,” the first of Kushner’s two-play, seven-hour creation, a slice of New York City, America, in 1985 as the AIDS virus claims new victims daily and there’s no end of the plague in sight. And yes, both the play and the production are potent enough to make you mad and make you laugh, cringe in shame at the America we are and somehow remain hopeful for the America we can be.

The play, which hasn’t been seen very often in Portland (right off hand, I can think of only one traveling production that has appeared here, but surely that can’t be right), is gigantic, escaping Manhattan for episodes in Salt Lake City, Washington, D.C., and Antartica. It depicts power broker Roy Cohn, a 13th century ancestor of one of the characters, a Mormon mother, a bag lady, a gay-at-heart Mormon Republican lawyer who’s trying to join the Reagan Revolution, his wife who spends her day in valium-induced hallucinations, and most importantly, a gay couple torn apart by AIDS and the obligations it imposes on the partner without the disease and the courage it requires of the partner who has it.

Without the resources of Hollywood (and the 2003 HBO miniseries is quite good, with Al Pacino, Meryl Streep and Mary-Louise Parker), it can’t be played naturalistically (or super-naturalistically — remember the Angel in the title). The Portland Playhouse production solves all the scene changes by mounting the props on wheels and pushing them out of the way to make way for the next episode, or by running two episodes concurrently on the wide World Trade Center theater stage. And that stage is kept bare otherwise, though the lighting design by Daniel Meeker and sound (which includes a medley of ’80s pop songs) by Sharath Patel somehow fill it up.

Once you get used to it and stop singing along to those 1980s songs, the interlocking stories take over. Prior Walter has AIDS and some divine help. His lover Louis can’t cope, in interesting ways. Joe has been befriended by Roy Cohn, and his future looks assured, if he can only keep his little secret impulses from getting out of control. His wife Harper senses something is “wrong” and flees to the valium bottle. Lots of other characters appear memorably to support the action. Kushner doubles and triples up on the roles, meaning the cast isn’t quite so large as it might be.

At a noontime panel discussion about the play on Sunday, director Brian Weaver said that his call for actors for the play was met by an unprecedented avalanche of interest from the local acting community, at least in the short history of Portland Playhouse. And the cast he settled on is stellar. Wade McCollum, who had a succession of starring roles here before moving to New York, is Prior Walter. Ebbe Roe Smith makes a fabulous Roy Cohn. Chris Harder and Nikki Weaver are Joe and Harper, and it’s hard to tell who has it worse. Noah Jordan is suitably charming and suffering as Louis, and Berwick Haynes, Gretchen Corbett and Lorraine Bahr have multiple roles as a sort of Moveable Chorus.

If you’ve seen an “Angels in America” before, you’ll likely find their characterizations familiar. The challenge of the play isn’t to find new levels in Prior Walter, say, though Wade McCollum’s version is more, um, robust than others I’ve seen (and perhaps I’ll have more to say about that in another post).  As Reed College’s Kate Bredeson pointed out in the panel discussion, Kushner is Brechtian, his theater is more about spectacle and presenting types and stories rather than unpeeling the Method onion. But the language is amazing, so it’s easy to see why so many actors want a piece of it.

It’s also important. Yes, theater can be important, too. I’d say that “Angels in America” made American theater and American playwrights braver, more ambitious. I think ultimately its role in the culture is to make American citizens that way, too, to understand that compassion comes at a cost, but that the cost of the absence of compassion is even greater.

During the panel, Weaver said that the primary question that Kushner poses in “Angels in America” is about the possibility of change, both for individuals and the society as a whole. He suggested that it comes in the catharsis that the characters undergo as their lives reach various crisis points, and he said that he advised the actors that this is one of those plays where you have to “rip yourself open and experience the crisis,” because that’s the only way the transformations that occur make any sense.

Ultimately, though, I’m not sure that the transformation of the characters on stage is what it’s all about. “Angels” is more about our transformation, I think, we in the audience. Watching it from the perspective of 20 years, we can see how much our society’s attitudes have changed about some matters and how little about others. And we also understand that progress is never uniform, which makes it seem more fragile.

Still, less fragile than it seemed 20 years ago, and I think that maybe we owe Kushner something for that.


A version of this post appeared on OPB’s Arts & Life page.

Kushner is frank about sexual matters on stage, and this production is very frank about them.  We see a LOT of Wade McCollum, for example, and one scene of sexual groping in the park gets pretty realistic.

We should note that Gretchen Corbett, who plays multiple roles in this production, is a board member of Oregon ArtsWatch.

The panel discussion was organized by Ruth J. Wikler-Luker, literary manager for Portland Playhouse and the producer of Boom Arts.

Wayne Miya of Our Housewas also part of the panel, and he pointed out that the number of HIV-AIDS diagnoses in Oregon is going up these days. It’s estimated that 7,000 people in Oregon and 4,000 in Portland have the syndrome, and 20 percent of them don’t know it, meaning they are a high risk for transmitting to others. Portland Playhouse is doing a special New Year’s Eve fundraiser for Our House.

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