The theatre is filled with the sound of loud beating wings, a shower of ceiling plaster rains upon the stage and a silvery angel slowly descends into the bedroom of a gay man suffering from AIDS.
“Very Steven Spielberg,” says the man, impressed.
That famous scene, the climax of Part 1 of Angels in America, could encapsulate Tony Kushner’s six-hour magnum opus: It’s dark, unpredictable, fantastical, awe-inspiring and very funny. Actually, that particular line is even more amusing now, considering Kushner received an Oscar nomination this year for writing Spielberg’s Lincoln.
I hadn’t seen the two-part Angels since 1996-97, the season when Canadian Stage’s hit production ran for a remarkable 336 performances. Watching it again now in Soulpepper’s thrilling new staging, I was reminded that, among many things, Kushner’s play is a brilliant comedy.
The laughter – and there were endless waves of it on the opening nights of both Part 1 and Part 2 – serves to leaven a grim vision of a late-20th-century America that is “terminal, crazy and mean.” The play is set mostly in 1985-86, in a Reagan-era U.S. where Republican fat-cats crow about power, chlorofluorocarbons have ripped a hole in the ozone layer, homophobia is rife and a horrific plague is killing gay men.
In Part 1, Millennium Approaches, the country appears to be hurtling toward the abyss, reflected in the turbulent lives of the play’s characters. Prior Walter (Damien Atkins), a young, gay WASP in New York, has discovered he has AIDS. Louis (Gregory Prest), his Jewish-intellectual lover, is terrified and can’t deal with it. At the same time, Joe Pitt (Mike Ross), a Mormon lawyer, struggles with a suppressed homosexuality that is giving him ulcers and destroying his marriage to the neurotic Harper (Michelle Monteith). She copes by retreating into drug-induced fantasies.
Joe is a protégé of Roy Cohn (Diego Matamoros), the real-life, right-wing legal shark who made his name as Senator Joe McCarthy’s chief counsel during the 1950s communist witch hunts. Cohn also has AIDS but, deep in the closet, he uses his influence to both cover up the truth and get his greedy hands on a private stash of the new treatment drug AZT.
By the end of Part 1, Louis has fled Prior’s bedside and taken up with Joe, who has finally admitted to being gay and left Harper. Prior, meanwhile, is experiencing nightmares and hallucinations that reach a crescendo in the arrival of the Angel (Raquel Duffy), who pronounces him a prophet with a major task ahead of him.
This “Great Work” is revealed in Part 2, Perestroika, when Kushner lets loose the flights of fancy that fluttered at the edges of Part 1. He sends Prior on a mission to Heaven – where God, like Louis, has run away – and swells the cast of characters to include more angels, some 19th-century Mormon pioneers and the World’s Oldest Living Bolshevik. Far stranger, he throws seeming opposites and bitter enemies together, culminating in a weirdly moving scene where the executed atomic spy Ethel Rosenberg (Nancy Palk) sings a tender Yiddish lullaby to Cohn, the man who sent her to the electric chair.
A melting pot of politics, religion, soap opera and surrealism, Angels isn’t easily wrestled to the stage, but Albert Schultz’s production never flags. From its opening scene, which evokes both Brecht’s Mother Courage and America’s immigrant past, through its economical but witty fantasy sequences, it remains steadily captivating. And the acting ranges from strong to exceptional.
Matamoros gives the most outstanding performance as Cohn. Crude, vicious and loathsome, the character invites scenery chewing (Al Pacino played him in the HBO film version; enough said), but Matamoros taps into his frail human side. His homely, harsh-voiced Cohn is more sad than offensive, a lonely, spent force left to bully and brag on his deathbed between excruciating spasms of pain.
A delightful Atkins, on the other hand, soft-pedals the pathos of Prior Walter. He’s boyish but bitchy, weedy but resilient. And he takes on the unwanted role of prophet with the funny petulance of a queen who has been handed a crummy costume for a drag ball.
Monteith gives Harper a girlish charm and vulnerability with a slight edge of hysteria. Ross’s open-faced Joe could easily fit into the cast of The Book of Mormon. Prest makes Louis a fidgety motor-mouth who gets tangled up in his own intellectualizing. Troy Adams as the gay black nurse Belize is campy and compassionate in equal doses. Palk shows off her versatility in various minor male roles, when not being solidly sensible as Joe’s Mormon mother Hannah.
In the bleak first part, Lorenzo Savoini’s grey-walled set takes on the air of a prison, and Bonnie Beecher’s lighting seems to get darker as the ailing Prior’s eyesight grows dim. In Part 2, the walls have been knocked ajar, the stage is strewn with broken plaster from the angel’s entry, and there is a sense both of chaos and freedom. It intimates the breakthrough in AIDS treatment and the fall of the Berlin Wall – two events with which the play ends.
Much has happened in the two decades since Angels first took wing. But in this stirring revival, Kushner’s call for tolerance and inclusion, and his hopeful vision of society as a “Great Work” in progress, still carries an audience aloft.
Editor's note: An earlier version of this article stated that greenhouse gases were responsible for ripping a hole in the ozone layer in the mid-1980s. In fact it was chlorofluorocarbons that were responsible.