‘Angels in America’
(Parts One and Two, “Millennium Approaches” and “Perestroika”)
By Tony Kushner
Directed by Blanka Zizka
Wilma Theater, Philadelphia
Through Oct. 21, 2012
Theatergoers in Philadelphia have been waiting for months for “Perestroika,” part two of Tony Kushner’s epic “Angels in America” at the Wilma Theater. Director Blanka Zizka orchestrated a seismic production of “Millennium Approaches” earlier this year, framed by the starkly effective set and sound designs by Matt Sanders, Chistopher Colucci and a uniformly strong cast. Both plays will be running in repertory in October.
Few plays with huge colliding social themes hold up as well as “Angels” 20 years after the fact, but few are as structurally solid and ripe for revival as a sterling actor’s play. At its heart, Kushner’s “gay Fantasia on national themes” written at the height of the AIDS epidemic, remains a j’accuse to a homophobic culture and a testament to gay solidarity at that perilous time. It also delves, with continued relevancy, with deep social chasms between gay and straights and culturally divided groups across the American landscape.
Still, for all of its theatrical power, in “Perestroika” (Russian for “reformation”) Zizka has to deal with Part Two’s narrative overload. Sanders’ design economy works against Kushner’s lofty metaphysical terrain in the second play. Even with wonderfully kinetic cable flying and those Remington steel wing-spans, the most troublesome scenes are the ones in which the descending Angel explains the absence of God in the presence of worldly chaos. When Kushner is more rhetorically reserved, Zizka is more grounded, she handles such prickly scenes, for instance, as Prior ascending to the disenfranchised Angel counsel with wit and poetic humor.
At over 3 ½ hours, Zizka ‘s character focus continues to unlock the play’s searing core dynamic. In both plays, she brings more narrative balance to the female roles, mostly in the roles of Harper and Mother Pitt. As Harper, Kate Czajkowski makes this ignored wife both more realized than written and much less a victim. Mary Elizabeth Scallen also manages to both soften Hannah and give her more spirit than just being a Mormon caricature; Scallen doubles as wry but cryptic ghost of Ethel Rosenberg. Maia DeSanti is less effective as the Angel; she could modulate her voice more effectively, but her physicality is great.
Czajkowski has great combative chemistry with Luigi Sottile, wretchedly believable as the horny Mormon on the down low and as the compassionate “buddy” who has faced up to himself as gay. Stephen Novelli’s Roy Cohn risked comparison to Al Pacino’s bombastic HBO performance in “Millennium,” but in Part Two, he modulates Cohn’s rages, giving him the grotesque pathos that Kushner intended. James Ijames’s Belize, the moral center and pragmatist of “Angels,” is magical and true from every angle.
Aubrey Deeker’s Prior gives nothing less than a heroic performance, the broken raw heart of Angels, facing up to the AIDS house of horrors. His comic moments, such as skulking around in black shrouds (looking like a cross between Martha Graham’s “Lamentation” and Marty Feldman’s Igor), are priceless.
Benjamin Pelteson has a lot of heavy lifting as Louis, the soul-searching cynic who rationalizes dumping Prior after his diagnosis and jumping into an affair with Joe Pitt. Louis also represents Kushner the self-doubting polemicist and Pelteson does a good job naturalizing the didactic nature of Louis’s speeches. His key scenes with Sottile and Deeker also, like so many moments by this cast, are both subtle and operatic.