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Theatre in the Park development director Adam Twiss made his highly impressive TIP directorial debut last Friday night with an incendiary staging of Angels in America, Part One: Millennium Approaches, which Pulitzer Prize and Tony Award®-winning playwright Tony Kushner subtitled “A Gay Fantasia on National Themes.” The stellar cast includes Triangle diva Lynda Clark and dramatic dynamos Eric Carl and Jesse R. Gephart; but it is the director’s highly capable, but comparatively lesser-known wife, Andrea Schulz Twiss, who turns in the evening’s most charismatic characterization — a tour de force performance — as poor unlucky-in-love Harper Pitt.
Harper is a desperately unhappy Mormon housewife, forcibly relocated from Salt Lake City to New York City, so that her ambitious but sexually ambivalent and increasingly inattentive conservative Republican lawyer-husband, Joe (Gephart), can further his career by ingratiating himself with well-connected but sleazy string-pullers, such as Roy Cohn (Dr. Kenny C. Gannon of Peace College Theatre), whose morals would make the scroungiest alley cat cringe. With the ticking of her own biological clock thundering in her ears, Harper is an emotional orphan, adrift on a sea of drugs, and beginning to hallucinate a whole motley crew of imaginary friends, some of whom may or may not be merely figments of her own overheated imagination.
Although Andrea Twiss steals the show with her intense low-key performance as poor childless Harper, increasingly left home alone while her husband is wrestling with his personal demons in the back alleys and gay bars of the Big Apple, Eric Carl, Lynda Clark, and Jesse Gephart add new laurels to their acting crowns with sharply etched portraits of newly diagnosed “gay plague” victim Prior Walter; the Angel of Death, who is working the night shift in the AIDS unit of the hospital where a high-strung and increasingly panicky Walter comes to grips with his horrible — but completely justified — fear of abandonment by his partner, Louis Ironson (Mathew-Jason Willis); and would-be U.S. Justice Department prosecutor Joe Pitt, who has asked Roy Cohn to help him get a coveted Reagan Administration appointment from Attorney General Ed Meese.
Kenny Gannon adds an explosive portrayal of foul-mouthed wheeler-dealer Roy Cohn, a deeply closeted gay Republican whose volcanic temper seems to have the thinnest of hair triggers (to mix metaphors). Mathew-Jason Willis starts a bit weakly but finishes strong as the fearful but also feckless Louis Ironson, who must decide whether he can walk out on Prior Walter at Prior’s most vulnerable moment; and Lynda Clark puts on her usual acting clinic while creating distinct personas for the night nurse, the Angel, and three other characters.
Also making the most of their moments in the spotlight are Steven Rausch as Belize/Mr. Lies; Amy Flynn as a doddering Hasidic rabbi; Prior Walter’s formidable mother, Hannah Pitt; and the bemused shade of Ethel Rosenberg, who haunts her persecutor Roy Cohn; and Robert Harris and Brent Simpson as two of Prior Walter’s English ancestors: Prior I, a gruff medieval monk complete with a scowl and a cowl, and Prior II, an Elizabethan(?) fop with a proverbial limp wrist.
The first part of Angels in America is overlong — an endurance contest that ran about two hours and 20 minutes last Saturday night — but director Adam Twiss energizes the award-winning script by eliciting pyrotechnic performances from his stellar cast. Although the end-of-show special lighting and sound effects are a little over-the-top, set and lighting designer Stephen J. Larson creates and artfully illuminates a striking backdrop of columns of the halls of justice and minimal scenery to interfere with the production’s cinematic scene changes. Larson’s wife, costume designer Shawn Stewart-Larson, dazzles the eye with her sometimes flamboyant reproductions of mid-1980s fashions; and sound designer Will Mikes likewise does his best to make the initial installment of Angels in America a don’t miss drama.
Angels in America, Part One: Millennium Approaches will complete its split run on April 24 and 26; and Part Two: Perestroika will open on Friday, April 18th, and runs April 20th, 25th, and 27th.
Theatre in the Park presents Angels in America, Part One: Millennium Approaches Thursday, April 24, at 8 p.m.; and Saturday, April 26, at 8 p.m.; and Part Two: Perestroika Friday-Saturday, April 18-19, at 8 p.m.; Sunday, April 20, at 3 p.m.; Friday, April 25, at 8 p.m.; and Sunday, April 27, at 3 p.m. in the Ira David Wood III Pullen Park Theatre, 107 Pullen Rd., Raleigh, North Carolina. $21 ($13 students and active-duty military personnel ands $15 seniors 60+). 919/831-6058 or etix through the presenter's website. Note 1: Arts Access, Inc. of Raleigh, NC (http://www.artsaccessinc.org/) will audio-describe the 8 p.m. April 24th performance of Part One: Millennium Approaches. Note 2: Arts Access, Inc. of Raleigh, NC will audio-describe the 8 p.m. April 25th performance of Part Two: Perestroika. Theatre in the Park: http://www.theatreinthepark.com/. Internet Broadway Database: http://www.ibdb.com/show.asp?ID=1596 (Part One: Millennium Approaches) and http://www.ibdb.com/show.asp?ID=1597 (Part Two: Perestroika). Internet Movie Database: http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0318997/.