By Lynn Venhaus
Just because one of the most acclaimed plays in modern times was labeled a masterpiece when it debuted in the ‘90s does not mean it automatically deserves that description nearly three decades later, for indeed, times have changed – and that superlative should be used sparingly anyway.
So, could The Repertory Theatre of St. Louis raise the bar with one of its most ambitious productions ever — the eagerly anticipated “Angels in America, Part One: Millennium Approaches”?
Never doubt a risk-taker, for the rewards are richer, sweeter. Get out your wallet and immediately book your tickets to Parts 1 and 2, and know that you are in for a stunning, visceral and artistic work presented so skillfully that it will leave you in awe and excited to spend another three hours with this heavyweight cast.
The Rep has smashed expectations with this dynamic “Angels in America” that is a sensational start to a new era in regional theater (new artistic director Hana Sharif).. Its first-ever production features some of the best performances ever on that hallowed Loretto-Hilton stage, where there have been many unforgettable moments throughout its 53 years.
Of course, “Part 1: Millennium Approaches” and soon, “Part 2: Perestroika,” requires a commitment of time, but the investment is worth it. Part one is split into three 50-minute acts and two intermissions. It never sags or loses its momentum.
Yes, it’s complex, but thanks to director Tony Speciale, the scenes flow together well with a crispness of movement and an urgency to its electric storytelling. He was aided by associate director Tommy Rapley, billed as “violence, intimacy and movement director.”
Featuring actors that are absolutely riveting, the script’s density isn’t a detriment – this ensemble has ensured its lucidity. Most surprising, with its big life-and-death issues, is how warm the humor is, which the audience responds to robustly.
During the 21st century years, playwright Tony Kushner has tweaked his opus for various revivals, recently the 2018 Broadway show that garnered the most Tony nominations ever for a play, 11, and won Best Revival, in addition to acting honors for Andrew Garfield (Prior) and Nathan Lane (Cohn).
Fun fact: Kushner was a NEA director fellow in residence at The Rep in 1985 and learned that a close college friend had died of AIDS. That night, he had the dream that eventually led to this game-changer, first produced in San Francisco in 1991.
The twin Tony-winning plays, both parts back-to-back in 1993 and 1994, which also won the Pulitzer Prize for Drama in 1993, are such a daunting investment of time, talent and resources that few tackle this landmark work.
Locally, a national tour played at the Fox Theatre and Stray Dog Theatre presented it in 2012, recognized with St. Louis Theatre Circle nominations in its inaugural year. The award-winning HBO miniseries in 2003, adapted by Kushner and directed by Mike Nichols, was the most watched cable TV show that year
Described as a “gay fantasia using national themes,” Kushner’s masterwork intersects three main stories using an eight-person cast that plays multiple roles. Part 1, set in New York City in 1985-86, includes Prior Walter (Barrett Foa), in the throes of AIDS, and his boyfriend, Louis (Ben Cherry), a word processor at the U.S. Court of Appeals in Manhattan; a deeply closeted lawyer Joe Pitt (Jayson Speters), who works there, and his neurotic wife Harper (Valeri Mudek), both Mormons, who are having marriage woes as they come to terms with his homosexuality; and real-life legal shark Roy Cohn (Peter Frechette), who is really dying of AIDS but tells everyone he has liver cancer, and will face consequences of his misdeeds over decades.
Joe’s by-the-book mom Hannah (Meredith Baxter) in Salt Lake City is also frantic. Other supporting roles include endearing David Ryan Smith as Belize, a drag queen, nurse, best friend and ex-boyfriend of Prior’s, in addition to Mr. Lies and Oceania; and Gina Daniels striking as The Angel, Emily, Sister Ella Chapter, homeless woman and Mormon Mother.
Sprawling yet intimate, “Millennium Approaches” still has something to say and its heart where it needs to be. It encapsulates those mid-80s Reagan years when the administration ignored the AIDS crisis, despite medical findings, until it became a frightening epidemic.
With Kushner’s vision impeccably realized, this production brings out all the terror and anger of those years, when desperation and the death toll soared. The potency here can’t be overstated. And yes, here we are again, with its social issues relevant for a nation in chaos and worrisome conservative court decisions on LGBTQ issues. The zeitgeist of 1985 packs a powerful punch with its fear and loathing.
Medical strides have been made, thankfully, but the play’s dip into politics, history, philosophy, medicine, sexuality, gender, religion, relationships and American life resonates, as does its message of tolerance, compassion and forgiveness.
Not the biggest fan of magic realism, I prefer the conversations and connections, but that said, the fantasy elements are well-done and coherent in a swirling milieu.
When Gina Daniels breaks through the ceiling as the iconic angel, it is a dazzling, seamless “Wow” moment. The fantastic flying effects are provided by ZFX Inc. Prior believes the angel to be a messenger, as his prophetic visions are an integral part of the engagement.
In fact, the technical elements are superb and enhance the action, with expert lighting from Xavier Pierce and dramatic sound punctuating scenes and music, both by Broken Chord. This tech-heavy show is challenging, and the difficulty level is high, but they have worked out the kinks and it’s impressive.
Tim Mackabee’s succinct scenic design follows the traditional minimal set pieces directive from Kushner but the Rep’s new lifts and projection designs by Alex Basco Koch aid the many switches in locales easily. The synchronicity is a marvel of economy and transition.
While the fluid ensemble percolates with passion and intensity, Part 1’s standouts were clearly Barrett Foa and Ben Cherry, with Peter Frechette ferocious as S.O.B. Cohn getting ready to pounce (his integral close-up will come in Part 2).
Cherry and Foa both command the stage every moment they are on, imbuing their troubled characters with a lightness of being so that their pathos pierces our hearts. Foa, a musical theater major at Michigan who has appeared at the Muny, moves gracefully to meet the physical demands of Prior Walter. Cherry expertly quips with sharp timing.
Jayson Speters delivers the emotional heft and confusion of his married-but-gay man Joe while Valeri Mudek brings a great deal of understanding to Harper, and let’s face it, her messy character’s flakiness can be off-putting.
To her credit, accomplished actress Meredith Baxter blends in with purpose, not overplaying anything to get marquee-name attention. While Hannah Pitt is no Elyse Keaton, there is something about Baxter playing a mom that is as comforting as it is familiar. She also slipped into opening the show as Rabbi Isidor Hemelwitz and excels as the intimidating ghost of Ethel Rosenberg.
I’m skimpy with the over-used superlatives but they fit here. This brilliant inspiring production is quite an achievement, an extraordinary experience about our humanity and our need for community and identity. I am counting down the days to “Part 2: Perestroika.” Who knew, 28 years ago, that “Angels in America” would continue to revolutionize theater? Let’s keep the conversations going.
The Repertory Theatre of St. Louis presents “Angels in America, Part 1: The Millennium Approaches” from Sept. 4 to Oct. 6, alternating in repertory with “Angels in America, Part 2: Perestroika,” which opens Sept. 13.
Buy tickets for each part individually, or purchase both parts and save 15%, at www.repstl.org/events/detail/angels-in-america-parts-one-and-two. Box office number is 314-968-4925.