The list of true masterpieces in the American theatre is brief. Although I may be pilloried for saying so, it begins roughly at mid-century, with A Streetcar Named Desire, and ends - for the moment, at least - in the early 1990s, with the two plays that comprise Angels in America. And with the notable exception of Long Day's Journey into Night, they were all written by men who were either Jews, homosexual, or both. That possibly heretical syllogism is at the very heart of Tony Kushner's stunningly original diptych, currently being given extraordinary life at PlayMakers Repertory Company in a rolling repertory production under the expert guidance of guest director Brendon Fox.
The last time a prominent regional theatre in our state assayed Kushner's non pariel two-play meditation on love, sex, politics, AIDS, and the American mind, in Charlotte during the Helms era, the result was public hysteria and national headlines. That may account in part for Fox's assertions that Angels in America is "not a gay play," but it's a statement to which I take great exception, as I do to PRC's eliminating Kushner's very emphatic surtitle A Gay Fantasia on National Themes from its programs and posters. In the context of the play's concerns and expression, that's a bit like claiming Fiddler on the Roof is not a Jewish musical. Not, to paraphrase the message of the old Levy's rye bread ads used to assure anxious Gentiles, that you have to be gay to love Angels in America.
Set in, and written during, the mid-1980s, both Part One: Millennium Approaches and Part Two: Perestroika (the first of which received both the 1993 Tony Award for Best Play and the Pulitzer Prize for Drama, the second having to settle merely for the Best Play Tony) weave two fictional couples, the mother of the - nominally, at least - heterosexual husband, and the ex-lover of one of the two gay men with the all-too real Roy Cohn, the ghost of Cohn's bete noir Ethel Rosenberg, a somewhat apologetic rabbi, the World's Oldest Living Bolshevik, and a celestial body whose earthy mission propels the often dazzlingly funny Perestroika to its sweetly annealing conclusion.
I can think of no other play that so deftly combines the political and the fantastic with the comic and the grotesque, nor which contains so much righteous anger so perfectly blended with pathos and wit, all of it filtered through the rigorously intellectual prism of a playwright's subtly poetic imagination. Even at its most pretentious - and a work this monumental could scarcely exist if the dramatist had been afraid to court grandiosity - Kushner's small-scale epic teems with a kind of magic rarely seen in the theatre, or anywhere else. One could argue with the play's spirituality, perhaps, which does not square terribly well with its author's well-known secular progressivism, but then Tennessee Williams wrestled with his own angels, repeatedly grappling with the chasm between the sacred and the profane, and at his best with searingly memorable results.
Kushner's America is that of, as the aged Rabbi observes, "the melting pot where nothing melted," where "the fixed orders are falling apart," but with no clear - and certainly no reassuring - direction. It is more than fitting that the opening of Angels at PRC should have taken place on the weekend that saw the centenniary of Ronald Reagan, whose unseen presence looms large in the action, and whose monstrous legacy continues trickling down today. Reagan's seemingly sunny yet deeply cynical world-view is the social and political frame to which Kushner nails his characters, squirming and helpless even when, as with the god-like Roy Cohn, that apparently impregnable bulwark of money and power are no match for a virus - especially one which, ironically, Cohn's precious right-wing Republican establishment ignores when it isn't invoking it as incontrovertible proof of divine wrath.
Entire treatises could be written on Tony Kushner's nimble profundity, his febrile theatricality, and the shimmering means by which he employs both in Angels - and probably will be. At the very least, one is tempted to quote his bons mot endlessly. Suffice for now to praise this production, which joins such previous PRC miracles as The Hostage, Ring 'Round the Moon, Cloud 9, Luminosity, Cyrano de Bergerac and Nicholas Nickleby among the finest examples of theatre I have seen anywhere.
Narelle Sissons' scenic designs are a model for combining the starkly simple, the cunningly utilitarian and the breathtakingly magical. Pat Collins' sumptuous lighting, like the alternatively blasé and fantastic costume of Jan Chambers, add luster in equal measures, as does Ryan J. Gastelum's remarkably effective sound design. Of Brendon Fox's masterful direction I have but one quibble: the many blackouts for scenic changes, which militate against the playwright's own strictures and dramaturgical fluidity. The pace by which Fox moves his staggeringly protean acting company through the 7-hour traffic of Kushner's complex double-header is as exhilarating and inventive as the actors themselves.
Jeffrey Blair Cornell achieves a considerable triumph in making his Cohn as pitiable as he is appalling and as funny as he is venal. As Joe Pitt, the ambitious Mormon lawyer mentored by the demonic Cohn even as he questions his marriage and his own sexuality, Christian Conn is both pathetic and enormously appealing, his anguish palpable yet never completely debilitating. As Harper, Joe's Valium-addicted agoraphobe of a wife, Marianne Miller gives a performance of ingenuous emotionality tempered by moments of acute wit. In the difficult role of Louis Ironson, whose terror of AIDS and its emotional toll cause him to behave with abysmal cowardice, Jeff Meanza eschews any special pleading for his character's less-than-salubrious aspects and is all the more embracably likable for that. Kathryn Hunter-Williams, in several roles but specifically as The Angel, alchemizes earthy humor with a genuinely frightening power.
Avery Glymph, as the nurse (and former drag-queen) Belize, provides the plays with their essential moral compass as well as with much of their deliriously campy wit. Glymph is as grave as he is insouciant, his performance shot through with an intelligence as scrupulous as the playwright's own. In a dizzying number of roles, Julie Fishell proves once more why she is one of PRC's greatest assets. It's almost impossible to imagine anyone else of local vintage who could take on parts as diverse and contradictory as an old Rabbi, a conniving politician, an ancient Soviet veteran, a superbly ironic Ethel Rosenberg, and a woman as savvy, sharp, incisive and compassionate as Joe's mother Hannah and make of each a perfect - and perfectly calibrated - gem.
As Prior Walter, Kushner's physically slight yet monumentally substantial central figure, Matt Carlson gives a performance of such deep humanity, drollness, style, frailty, strength, and unsentimental pathos that he seems not only to take the crushing weight of the two plays onto his slender frame but also to support them, and to buoy them up, almost single-handedly. Triumphing, as Prior himself does, over every calamity, even as he succumbs to grief, betrayal, and aching loneliness, Carlson seems to me the absolute ideal of Prior.
Minor cavils aside, this production too is one for the ages.
Angels in America runs, in rotating repertory, through March 6 in the Paul Green Theatre in the Center for Dramatic Art, 120 Country Club Rd., at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. See the sidebar for details.