Repost from Nicole L.V. Mullis, For the Enquirer Published 3:07 p.m. ET May 5, 2018
“Angels in America, Part One: The Millennium Approaches” wears its Pulitzer Prize on its sleeve. The audience should leave the play pondering truth, and What A Do Theatre Compay’s current production ensures they will.
Tony Kushner’s sets this play in 1985 America. Reagan is president, the political divide is widening, the AIDS epidemic is escalating, and the traditional way of life is fracturing. Against this backdrop, a handful of stubborn souls cling to their “truth,” even if it means living a lie.
Joe and Harper Pitt are a faithful Mormon couple, but Joe is a closeted homosexual, and Harper is a love-starved pill-popper. Prior Walters and Louis Ironson are an openly gay couple, but Louis isn’t open with his family and fainthearted when Prior contracts AIDS. Linking these couples together is the powerful Roy Cohn, a fierce McCarthy-era lawyer, who can bend anything to his will except the disease that is killing him and his clueless law clerk Joe.
When dreams, hallucinations, and supernatural forces slip into the mix, truth shatters their veneers. Everything falls apart, which is a relief, even if it is a mess.
Although this is soul-dredging stuff, there is plenty of gallows humor. The dialogue is clever, and the action overlaps in wonderful ways. Director Randy Wolfe’s cast and crew embrace this dynamic to great effect.
The cast is balanced, led by Mark Switzer as Prior Walter. Switzer’s delivery is effortless, whether quipping with ghosts, dabbling in French, wielding a crucifix, or howling in pain. His portrayal is like the character of Prior himself – brave and honest.
It’s hard to believe Christian Perez is still in high school. He brings an emotional complexity to the tortured Louis that belies his years. Andy Helmboldt is heartbreaking as Joe Pitt, especially when he tells his wife he is the knife-wielding stranger in her delusion.
Ruu Sterr is fascinating as Mr. Lies, Harper’s slick-talking travel agent, who happens to be imaginary, and Belize, Louis and Prior’s straight-talking moral compass, who happens to be a drag queen. Besty King delivers a worthy Harper but stole the stage as a Prior One and a bum in the Bronx. Dave Stubbs is a profanity-spewing tour de force as Roy Cohn, although his tongue sometimes got ahead of his words.
Sue Kernish and Rachel Markillie were fantastic every time they slipped on stage to assume a small but significant role. The scene between Sister Ella Chapter and Hannah Porter Pitt is not only humorous but the beauty of the play in a nutshell – two women trying to be holier-than-thou while sneaking a cigarette.
Samantha Snow’s set is inspired. The omnipresent candles and bare-bones props give the space a church-like feel, where the natural and supernatural could mingle freely. The multiple set levels let the stories visibly weave, collide, and hang over each other. The bed at center stage serves as the marriage bed, the deathbed, and the “doorway to revelation.”
Periodically, the audience is reminded they are watching a play. Set changes are unapologetic, often facilitated by the actors themselves. John Purchase’s sound design is unerringly realistic, even to the rumble of conversation in another room, before breaking into mechanized pronouncements of otherworldly messengers. Snow’s light design allows you to see the set transitions, yet makes you sit up straight when the angel arrives. Nancy King’s costume work is at times fantastic, like the angel’s fluttering wings, and at times ordinary, like Harper’s daytime pajamas.
This push and pull of reality and fantasy works except at the end. The angel appears behind the audience, largely obstructed by the audience itself, which guts the power of this pivotal moment. Still, What A Do does a commendable job with this complicated play. Be prepared to ponder.
Please note this play contains adult situations and a great deal of graphic language.