If you’ve taken any basic college drama class in the past twenty years, hopefully you’ve come in contact with Tony Kushner’s Pulitzer-Prize winning play, Angels in America. Originally presented in repertory on Broadway from 1993 to 1994, this two-play, commissioned work became a national sensation. Through the beauty of his original and memorable dialogue, Kushner astutely puts the Reagan-era, AIDS-era and Cold War-era of American history into a fantasy situation in which, like humanity, the angels are in search of an absent God. Beneath the highly philosophical theme, Kushner delves deep into the personal struggles of Americans dealing with political, personal and biological crisis.
Now twenty years since its conception, Angels in America is currently running in repertory at Chicago’s Court Theatre in Hyde Park. Under the direction of Charles Newell, both parts of this play are presented in a definitive Chicago production, unlikely to be seen again for many years to come. At the published script’s suggestion, this production is done with a minimal yet highly functional set designed by John Culbert. The sparse, multi-leveled, grid stages many different scenes and is used several times to illustrate the gulf that opens between people even as their lives together implode.
The eight part cast is comprised of Chicago’s leading stars. Many of the actors double as other roles often switching genders. Ten-time Jeff Award recipient Hollis Resnik, always a treasure, shines in five different roles but truly moves the audience as Hannah Pitt, a stoic, mormon, mother who comes to New York to save her son’s failing marriage. Hannah instead finds her place among a gay couple dealing with AIDS. Her son, Joe Pitt is played by Geoff Packard whose naive sincerity to the role never edges into caricature, making his eventual unraveling all the more tragic. His wife, Harper Pitt, is played by Heidi Kettenring. Miss Kettenring’s emotional range as a pill-popping wife, questioning her mormon faith and her husband’s sexuality is enough to break even the most hardened hearts. Harper leaves the audience with a hopeful monologue that will resonate for days. Mary Beth Fisher is great as always in the role of the Angel who comes to an AIDS ravaged man abandoned by his lover. A true surprise for the evening is how much empathy Larry Yando’s performance as infamous, McCarthy-era, lawyer Roy Cohn, elicits as he spends seven hours on stage dying of AIDS.
Though this play weaves in and out of consciousness and shifts from searingly funny to emotionally overwhelming, it’s always navigable and audiences will find that it always returns to the present, back to reality, back to life. Kushner’s poetic dialogue strings together America’s past but most importantly attempts to predict our future from the vantage point of the early 1990s. Angels in America captures a generation of gay culture that many worried would be swept away by the onslaught of the AIDS crisis and the conservatism of the time. Now twenty years since it’s original production, the final monologue of the second play, Perestroika, makes us wonder if much has changed in 2012. The concluding monologue delivered by character Prior Walter, played by Rob Lindley, celebrates life in the refreshing certainty that the falling of the Berlin wall provided, leaving the modern audience to wonder if the headlines of today are pointing us back in the direction of crisis. This play remains as relevant today as it was in 1993. See this play.
Catch both parts of Angels in America: Millenium Approaches & Perestroika at the Court Theatre in Hyde Park now through June 3rd. Tickets run from $35 to $65. See both parts back to back Saturdays and Sundays or alternate parts Tuesdays through Fridays. Part I runs three hours, Part II runs four hours. Viewer discretion is advised as this show contains graphic language, sexual content and nudity. For tickets call (773) 753-4472. The Court Theatre is located at 5535 S. Ellis Ave Chicago, IL 60637