Few works of art can sustain an audience’s focus for three and a half hours. It’s hard to ask people to walk into the theater at 7:30 p.m. on a Thursday and leave at 11:00 p.m.
Yet, the School of Music, Theatre & Dance’s recent production of Tony Kushner’s “Angels in America Part I: Millennium Approaches” managed to do this and more. It was a captivating story of gay life in the ’80s in Manhattan, and while many of the cultural references were dated, the meaning and significance of the work remain relevant in the current cultural and political climate.
The play focuses on three groups of characters and the interactions between them. First is Louis Ironson and his AIDS-stricken lover Prior Walter. As Prior’s sickness progresses, Louis struggles to cope. Next is Mormon law clerk Joe Pitt and his anxious, pill-addicted wife Harper Pitt. The Pitts’ struggle to understand Joe’s closeted gay identity, especially in regard to their strict religious beliefs. Lastly, the story follows closeted lawyer Roy Cohn as he faces threats of disbarment from the New York Bar, a character who is loosely based on the historical figure. Cohn also faces a sudden diagnosis with AIDS and a perpetual denial of the disease that he faces.
Though the subject matter is incredibly serious, the play contains many brief moments of humor. They form a bulwark against the dark subject matter as a whole, allowing the audience to laugh at moments when tears might be more appropriate. At one point during Prior’s hospitalization scene, I found myself laughing as a defense mechanism against the terrible anguish that I knew the characters on stage must have been facing.
Despite my great attempts, it also became hard to separate the current political overtones surrounding the play from the play itself. Cohn, after all, was an early mentor for Donald Trump. Trump learned his strategy of aggressive litigation from Cohn during his legal spat with the Justice Department over alleged fair housing violations in his New York properties. It was easy to see echoes of Trump in Cohn and Cohn in Trump. At one point, Cohn is visited by the ghost of Ethel Rosenberg; the aggressive, heartless nature of legal legacy was exposed to the audience in his recollections of successfully prosecuting the ghost.
As a relic of the ’80s, the play serves as a reminder of the negative side of the Reagan years. The closeted nature of gay life in the ’80s, for example, is hard to fully contemplate in relation to our increasingly accepting society. The fears of the AIDS epidemic and the allegedly indifferent government response to it also feature prominently into the play’s overall plot.
At its core, however, the play is about the morally and ethically bankrupt makeup of American society. As Louis proclaims in act three, “There are no angels in America, no spiritual past, no racial past, there’s only the political.” America, Kushner argues, is an ever-changing power struggle between various groups and individuals. It lacks a central theme or overarching purpose.
The play ends with Prior being visited by an angel. As Prior recoils in awe and terror, the angel proclaims that Prior is a prophet and that the “Great Work begins.” While the staging throughout the production had been minimal and bare, it was this image of a suspended angel flapping two floor-to-ceiling wings over the bed of the terrified Prior that stuck with me as I left the theater. It was stunningly beautiful, and despite the three hours that I had already spent in the theater, I felt myself wishing for more.
The minimal staging matched the small cast; the play featured only eight actors and one offstage percussionist. Every member of the cast performed brilliantly, many adopting multiple roles. One actress, for example, played Joe’s mother, the Rabbi, Henry and Ethel Rosenberg. Another played The Angel, Emily, Sister Ella Chapter and A Homeless Woman.
This was a reminder of the power of theater in its simplest form. This was theater stripped of all glitter and glamour; it was theater at its simplest, and theater at its best. It was long, meandering and yet frighteningly powerful. It was a chilling statement on the very makeup of American society, a complex, thought-provoking and haunting depiction of the failures of contemporary American society.
Ultimately, the work’s central tenet is that there is no central tenet of contemporary society. Kushner suggests the human condition to be an endless power struggle in a moral vacuum, a harsh fight between progressive and reactionary forces in absence of any guiding beliefs.