Review: Angels in America
The 25th anniversary production of Tony Kushner's epic; Angels in America, takes the audience on a journey of death and destruction in the Reagan-era of America. But, it does something else too. It spreads a message of life and hope in the most beautiful and unexpected ways.
This revival does not feel like a relic of years past, as some might assume. Experiencing this play feels like opening up doors to many issues through Kushner's ideas on politics, love, life, religion, sex, and much more. The rich words are balanced with the simplistic set, each room outlined in sleek neon lighting. And rightfully so, as the focus is on the substantial cast of characters whose paths will cross in what is arguably the worst circumstances.
The central character is Prior Walter, played by Andrew Garfield whose blazing performance ranges from terror, to despair, to peace. He hits every aspect of the character perfectly, from drag queen to "angelologist". He seems to know he has AIDS before he says it outright, just as he knows that his boyfriend Louis, played by James McArdle, will leave him before it happens. Prior believes that Louis does not have the strength to watch him die, as other people's partners do, and Louis eventually concedes that he cannot watch Prior die.
Louis becomes involved with Joe Pitt (played by Lee Pace), a gay, Mormon, Republican, lawyer from Salt Lake City who catches the eye of Roy Cohn and is offered a job in Washington. Cohn, played brilliantly by Nathan Lane, faces off with many people in his life, largely in an attempt to hide his sexuality. He is volatile to his nurse, Belize (played by Nathan Stewart-Jarrett) who also happens to be a friend and confidant of Prior, and is haunted by Ethel Rosenberg (Susan Brown) while on his deathbed.
Meanwhile, Pitt's marriage to his suffering and Valium-addicted wife Harper is falling apart. Denise Gough gives a heart-breaking performance in the role of Harper, who has a sinking feeling about her husband's sexuality, despite his initial denial. She has invented a travel agent (also played by Nathan Stewart-Jarrett) in an attempt to get out of her situation, but eventually finds herself with her mother-in-law, Hannah Pitt (Susan Brown), who came to New York after her son told her he was gay and ends up working at the Mormon Visitor Center, where Harper ends up finding a kindred spirit in Prior.
Finally, there is The Angel, bursting into Prior's room to deliver the book and recognize him as a prophet. Played with fierce passion and anger by Beth Malone, The Angel asks him to tell humans to stop progressing so God will return to them. However as both Kushner and the audiences are aware, progress is the only way forward, something Prior makes clear during his quick visit to heaven, where he decides to return the book and keep living.
A stark theme of the production is abandonment. At one point or another, everyone feels abandoned by someone they care about, and Kushner's writing does not back away from the honesty of that feeling. At times it is bitingly funny, though always followed with a realization that reminds both the audience and the characters of impending death. And the play is also a reminder of inequality, as the well connected Roy Cohn receives a supply of AZT, a drug that could help him. For Prior however, he has no chance of getting his hands on the medication until Louis and Belize bring him Cohn's stash.
In the epilogue, several years down the road, Prior addresses the audience with a poignant message that resonates as much now as it did 25 years ago.
"This disease will be the end of many of us, but not nearly all...and we are not going away. We won’t die secret deaths anymore. The world only spins forward. We will be citizens. The time has come.
Bye now. You are fabulous creatures, each and every one. And I bless you: More Life. The Great Work Begins."
It is a message of acceptance and a call to wake up to the fact that we need each other, no matter who we are.