Regional Reviews: Washington, D.C.
Also see Susan's recent review of A Nice Indian Boy
Amazing as it seems, Kushner's Pulitzer Prize-winning epic of life, love, and philosophical discourse in 1980s New York City is now more than 30 years old. While Maruti Evans' scenic design at first seems absurd–sheets of tattered plastic drape from the ceiling and encase several mismatched chandeliers; the stage is covered in fine sand, with a large hole in the center of the floor–Szász incorporates references to both serenity (meditative Zen gardens, cast members creating music from Tibetan singing bowls) and outrage (sand representing the ashes of dead AIDS victims). In this way, the director maintains a continuous flow among the many scenes and a way to connect the characters' daily lives with something larger and eternal.
Rather than coming across as pretentious, this concept grounds these people by sharing their stories in a non-realistic environment. Scenes that Kushner wrote to be performed simultaneously on different parts of the stage now overlap and echo each other.
The malevolent engine of the play is Roy Cohn, Republican power broker (and, not mentioned by Kushner, mentor to Donald Trump) and a gay man who refuses to acknowledge himself as such. Edward Gero embodies the man: his steamrolling self-confidence, his toxic sense of entitlement, his casual bullying, his need to control everything and redefine things if he doesn't like how they look. Costume designer Oana Botez has outfitted him in loud plaid three-piece suits and a floor-length gold brocade robe; he makes several of his entrances rising from beneath the stage on a round platform that fits into the opening above.
The rest of the ensemble cast may have fewer audience-grabbing moments, but they all strike home. John Austin embodies tortured rectitude as Joe Pitt, a Mormon lawyer who falls under Roy's influence; Michael Kevin Darnall depicts feckless Jewish intellectual Louis Ironson as pathetically needy without making the audience hate him; Nick Westrate imbues Prior Walter, Louis' partner who becomes the center of the drama, with both a sharp intelligence and an awareness of what he doesn't yet understand; as Joe's troubled wife Harper, Deborah Ann Woll retains the character's innate dignity in the midst of suffering and acting out; and Susan Rome is steely as Joe's mother, a Mormon matriarch determined to make things right.
Justin Weaks captivates as both Belize, Prior's outspoken friend and a hospital nurse, and Mr. Lies, Harper's imaginary friend (in that character, dressed in a sharp yellow suit, green shirt, and red derby hat, he slithers as he walks and hovers at the edges of the stage when he is not interacting with Harper.) Billie Krishawn ably embodies both an awe-inspiring angel and several other roles.
Beyond the scenery and costumes, Christopher Akerlind has designed some otherworldly lighting effects and Fabian Obispo has contributed original music and sound design that draw the audience into this complex, sometimes inexplicable world.
Angels in America, Part One: Millennium Approaches continues through April 23, 2023, at Arena Stage, Fichandler Stage, Mead Center for American Theater, 1101 6th St. SW, Washington DC. For tickets and information, please call 202-488-3300 or visit www.arenastage.org.
By Tony Kushner