American playwright and screenwriter Tony Kushner has amassed credits over four decades, but it’s Angels in America: A Gay Fantasia on National themes for which he remains best known. A seven-hour epic presented in two parts (Millennium Approaches and Perestroika), Angels in America focuses on characters living in New York City in the 1980s, when conservative politics prevailed under President Ronald Reagan. These were the early days of the HIV/AIDS epidemic, when the disease was swiftly spreading and decimating a community, and the Reagan Government was accused of having acted slowly as a result of homophobia.
More than 30 years after the events depicted in Kushner’s work, Angels in America has returned to the Sydney stage in a new production by Apocalypse Theatre Company at the Old Fitz. Directed by Dino Dimitriadis, this production presents the full seven hours over two sessions in the venue’s intimate 60-seat theatre.
In Part One – Millennium Approaches, we meet a young Jewish man, Louis (Timothy Wardell), and his partner, Prior (Ben Gerrard). Louis learns that Prior has AIDS and that his condition is deteriorating rapidly. Wracked by fear, a weak Louis deserts Prior, who is left to cope with the relationship breakdown while his physical health is steadily declining. Whether or not Louis will redeem himself will take almost the full seven hours to be revealed.
We’re also introduced to Roy Cohn (Ashley Lyons), a notorious, ruthless and tainted attorney who rose to fame for his integral role in investigating accused communists in the McCarthy era (as a sidenote, US President Donald Trump was once a client of Cohn.) A closeted gay man, Cohn also discovers he has been struck with the AIDS virus. When he learns of efforts afoot to see him disbarred for borrowing money from a client, Cohn resolves that no one will stop him practising law as long as he is alive.
Cohn works with Joe (Gus Murray), a conservative Mormon lawyer who has moved from Salt Lake City with his wife, Harper (Catherine Davies). Joe also denies his sexual orientation, while Harper is agoraphobic and has a Valium addiction. Both husband and wife must overcome fears, in order to live freely and truthfully. But achieving this will be more than they bargained for.
And while the harsh realities of each character’s daily lives plays out before us, there’s interaction between three of the players and supernatural characters. Prior, as his health fails, begins to see visions of the Angel of America (Maggie Dence), who calls on him to be a messenger to the world; Harper’s drug-induced hallucinations see her regularly conversing with an affable travel agent; and Roy begins to see the ghost of Ethel Rosenberg, an American woman executed for espionage. Cohn privately lobbied the judge in Rosenberg’s trial to impose the death sentence – a circumstance that somehow now rests uncomfortably with him. Each encounter with otherworldly beings affords us deeper insights into the characters’ inner turmoil and the deeply-lodged demons with which they grapple.
While it’s a reflection on a terrifying, deadly health crisis and the political and social environment that assisted the widespread devastation, ultimately Kushner’s text explores ideas of stasis versus change and the interconnectedness of our stories. It’s all tied together in a highly intelligent, provocative and wonderfully written double feature that, while rich with references to the goings-on in the world of the day, has plenty to say to contemporary audiences. And not only is the source material strong, but it’s been beautifully treated in Dimitriadis’ production that absorbs us, keeps us suspended between the physical and supernormal world for seven hours, and sends us back into the streets of Sydney, encouraged.
Dimitriadis makes it seem as though the natural home of Kushner’s opus is an intimate space. The production brings us physically close to the well fleshed out characters and their lives. Smooth, thoughtfully-conceived scene transitions are integral to the fluidity of the piece. The actors enter and exit each other’s spaces in the most elegant movements, while Ben Pierpoint’s affecting compositions and sound design marry perfectly with Benjamin Brockman’s lighting choices, ensuring Angels in America retains its innately epic qualities in such a small theatre. Jeremy Allen’s set is deceptively intricate and an achievement in scale for this space. And whether trying to locate us in Heaven or in 1980s New York City, Maya Keys’ costumes are spot on.
But this production succeeds in large part because of the tremendous performances of every cast member, who all share the heavy lifting. As the bright but cowardly Louis, Wardell is excellent, portraying a character who is complex and conflicted. Similarly, Gerrard is superb in the role of Prior, the young man suffering profoundly but possessing an unrelenting determination to live. He brings us along on his harrowing journey – and having that proximity is difficult, at times.
Murray is perfectly cast as the clean-cut, respectable and seemingly well-intentioned Mormon whose secret begins to unravel him; Davies delivers, with a gentleness as Joe’s anxious and unstable wife, trapped in her home and an empty marriage; and Lyons is first class, owning the role of the unscrupulous, egocentric and unapologetic lawyer.
Making his professional debut, Joseph Althouse is outstanding as Belize, the nurse who interacts with a number of characters (he is a friend to both Louis and Prior, providing assistance to Prior after Louis’ departure, and also becomes tasked with caring for Roy). He is the great listener and sounding board of the piece. It’s a crucial role, with Belize almost the moral compass of the show, and Althouse approaches it with incredible confidence and obvious insights into the text and character.
Dence is enigmatic and arresting as the Angel of America, while Jude Gibson completes a stellar cast in a variety of guises, including Joe’s austere mother and the insistent ghost of Ethel Rosenberg. In short, this is easily one of the best ensembles to have appeared on any Sydney stage in recent times.
Angels in America continues to be a powerful piece of theatre and Dimitriadis’ production is an unequivocal triumph and important nod to the need for us all to have hope and to live for today.
ANGELS IN AMERICA – SEASON DETAILS
Venue: Old Fitz Theatre (129 Dowling Street, Woolloomooloo, NSW)
Dates: Playing now until 16 March 2019
* Parts 1 and 2 play on alternating nights, and together on Saturdays only.
For the full performance schedule, please visit: redlineproductions.com.au/angels-in-america/