The angel has landed.
Yes, that incandescent white seraph who descends from the heavens into the New York apartment of an awe-struck AIDS patient. She is the winged emblem of Tony Kushner’s extraordinary two-part, seven-plus hour saga, “Angels in America: A Gay Fantasia on National Themes.” And she returns in all her glory to the theater that introduced Kushner’s epic drama to Seattle 20 years ago on the same stage.
The venue is now The Cornish Playhouse. And the producing Intiman Theatre has been downsized into a summer festival. But “Millennium Approaches,” the first half of “Angels” (Part Two, “Perestroika,” opens in September) is still the same brainy, heartbreaking, impassioned wonder it was in 1994.
Intiman artistic head Andrew Russell pulls off this Tony and Pulitzer Prize-honored opus about AIDS and Reaganism, Mormons and homophobia, personal and public angels with a new cast.
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From our current Obama-era vantage point, the epic still flies in the sensitive, respectful hands of Russell and eight Northwest actors. In fact, the three hours and three acts of “Millennium Approaches” whisk by quicker and more cogently than many plays half as long. There’s one notable misstep, but that’s for later.
“The test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposing ideas in mind at the same time and still retain the ability to function,” observed F. Scott Fitzgerald. That is true for every major “Angels” character — all intelligent, conflicted, in extremis and desperately longing for something. Their intertwined personalities and relationships are some of the most intriguing in modern theater.
Bully political broker Roy Cohn (based on the late, eponymous attorney, and played by Charles Leggett), wants naive young Mormon attorney, Joe Pitt (Ty Boice) to be his fixer on President Reagan’s judicial staff.
Prior Walter (Adam Standley) wants his squeamish live-in lover Louis Ironson (Quinn Franzen) to stick by him through a bout with AIDS, just as mentally unraveling Harper Pitt (Alex Highsmith) wants her husband, Joe, to stay. But the long-closeted Joe wants Louis to be his first gay lover. Joe’s devout Mormon mother Hannah (Anne Allgood), wants her son to be a good boy. And Prior’s wise nurse friend Belize (Timothy McCuen Piggee) just wants everyone to get real.
A soap opera? Yes, but no. The personal entanglements are intriguing (including one graphically sexual pickup), but complicated by politics, ambivalence, fear, guilt.
And the moral consequences are colored by the times — the mid-1980s, when Reagan-style American individualism was beating back New Deal values. Homosexuality was widely considered a sin, or a tragedy. And an AIDS diagnosis was probably a death sentence.
Kushner’s people talk like no other playwright’s, and how they can talk! Words are their weapons, shields, microscopes. They debate one another, themselves. The play argues with itself, as Kushner dissects what love and democracy have become in a “melting pot where no one melted.”
But the cerebral is also fantastical. The sky cracks, and wham! Harper’s in Antarctica with a cosmic travel agent (Piggee). Prior is gazing at that intrusive angel (Marya Sea Kaminski). A phantom from Roy’s Commie-hunting days appears.
Costumer Mark Mitchell and lighting designer Robert Aguilar provide the whiz-bang, but Jennifer Zeyl’s imposing Hall of Justice backdrop, the set is very bare. And when parallel scenes overlap, the sightlines and dialogue are less defined.
The cast elucidates Kushner’s knockout script from moment to moment, never missing a beat to move or amuse us: Standley from the hell of Prior’s illness, Highsmith from Harper’s zonk-out, Boice from Joe’s anguish, etc.
So what’s lacking? Judaism and Mormonism are themes here, so a more pungent sense of the New York-Jewishness of Leggett’s milder-than-usual Roy, and Franzen’s neurotic-intellectual Louis. As the “Angels in America” continues through Sept. 21, there’s room for both performances to ripen.
Misha Berson: firstname.lastname@example.org