SALT LAKE CITY — Angels in America Part One: Millennium Approaches by Tony Kushner was first performed in 1990 and was in London and New York a few years after that. This well-written show is a powerful show for Utah considering the themes of religion and sexual orientation present in the show. Utah Repertory Theater held nothing back in the three-hour performance, and it struck a deep chord within me.
The play begins at a Jewish funeral with Liz Whittaker playing the role of the long-bearded Rabbi, sharing some deeper meanings about death. The next scene shows Joe (Lucas Stewart) and his boss, Roy (Andrew Maizner), who offers to get him a great job in Washington DC. Joe goes home to discuss with his wife, Harper (Anne Louise Brings), but she is in an anxiety fit from taking too many Valium pills and can’t agree to the move. The story moves to another couple, Lou (Josh Tewell) and Prior (Jesse Nepivoda), who has AIDS and is trying to tell his boyfriend, Lou. Eventually Lou hears him and has to leave. These two couples, Joe and Harper, and Lou and Prior, with Dee Tua’one playing supportive characters for both sides, seem to take most of the story line as it switches between their experiences navigating their problems up to a scene that has both couples in their separate scenes performing at the same time with moments of crossover. The show ends on a cliffhanger, with the playbill promising to perform part two, Perestroika, next year.
I was astounded at the quality of this performance and of the play itself. Kushner has been honored as a writer in many ways, including writing screenplays for Steven Spielberg, and this show is considered Kushner’s greatest theatrical work. The actors kept up with the script that took me through a journey of understanding racism, politics, homosexuality, disease, and relationships.
JayC Stoddard directed this long show that I’m sure was not a walk in the park. The most powerful scene was when the two couples had their scenes on stage at the same time, and the way Stoddard had the characters cross into each other’s scenes without seeing each other was so powerful. I loved the energy of this work as displayed through the acting and fantastic sound (Katelyn Limber) and lighting (Jacob Hunt). The use of stark color to denote the difference between the two couples was enlightening, and I loved how the Antarctica scene looked cold with the blue white lighting while the fire pit glowed with the small yellow light from above. The ethereal sounds of the angel and the doom coming were the perfect mix of frightening and breathtaking.
The set was very minimalist, designed by Cara Pomeroy, and with Hunt’s lighting to give more variety to the simple utility tables and desks, it was easy to enjoy how a bed could change into a couch or a table for a new scene. I appreciated the few realistic additions like a telephone on the table or a blanket for the bed. I love theater where the writing is so good that a lot of set details aren’t needed and don’t in the way of the audience member’s imagination.
Nepivoda deserves a large rose bouquet for his amazing performance in the role of Prior Walter. He had one of the most difficult roles, his character dying of a slow debilitating illness while trying to keep his lover close to him without causing harm. Prior also seems to be the one chosen by the angel for whatever task is coming in part two, which I’m very excited to see. Tewell as Prior’s lover, Lou, had such a fun way of running through his lines so fast I couldn’t catch all the jokes, but his mannerism of talking quickly fit his character perfectly. I appreciated how Lou reacted to Prior’s demands on him, because I could see the inner struggle he dealt with.
Whittaker played multiple roles and easily transitioned between male and female characters with various accents. I was inspired by her ability to adapt to a new role so quickly. I enjoyed the humor in most of her roles, like when Whittaker as Stewart’s mother tried to get to Brooklyn. Stewart’s mother finally lost her temper, screaming her lungs out at a confused vagrant in the Bronks (played by Whitney Black) to get her wits together and to tell her the way to Brooklyn, saying, “I’m sorry that you’re psychotic, but just make the effort!” Brings also had a humorous male character to play, a fast-talking, self-assured lawyer working for Roy, which was a nice contrast to Brings’s paranoid and depressed character, Harper.
Some stark messages hit me during the run of this show. I really appreciated Belize (Tua’One), friend of Prior and Lou, sharing with Lou that he couldn’t teach him “softness, compliance, forgiveness, grace,” but that the smell was there. When Lou smelled it he said, “snow,” which showed how some people experience the world with their souls and others just with their senses. One scene when Maizner as Roy talked to Joe about taking the DC job, he brought up fear and how it hinders people. Roy says, “Don’t be afraid to live in the raw wind naked and alone. Learn at least what you’re capable of.” That line made me wonder how much I miss in life when holding back out of fear. The one line that I found most disturbing was when Stewart calls his mom, played by Whittaker, and tells her he’s a homosexual. Stewart’s mom ends with the reply, “I raised you better than that.” I felt so sad hearing that line, because I could see how much Stewart wanted to be heard and understood and how scared his mom was to accept the truth. The mom’s line holds a lot of weight, especially with it being Pride week in Utah. That exchange was probably the most intense moment in the show for me.
The engaging play, Angels in America, is performed spectacularly by a wonderful cast, and I would highly recommend it to all. The entire production comes together to portray the profound script meaningfully and expertly. The quality of production allows the script to shine, and it is highly worth experiencing. The show is for a mature audience, and the two intermissions help break up the length of the play. I can’t wait for the sequel.