"Angels in America" Is One of the Most Influential, Epic Stories of HIV/AIDS

The Wilma Theater concludes its 2011-12 theater season with Director Blanka Zizka’s production of Tony Kushner’s masterpiece Angels in America, Part I: Millennium Approaches.

The play begins with a recollection of a great voyage and ends with a message from an angel. In between Kushner’s epic story of life, death and everything else that matters are topics that run the gamut from the ozone layer to the McCarthy hearings in the ’50s. Democracy, justice, religion, spirituality, history, politics and identity are all investigated in depth through the relationships between the characters.

Befitting its epic scope, the story moves across both time and space, but the primary setting is New York City. It’s 1985 and the Big Apple is the epicenter of the AIDS epidemic, afflicting primarily gay men and drug addicts. As an entire generation of gay Americans lay dying, the response from President Reagan was one of appalling indifference. Some religious zealots even cheered the rising death toll as a sign of God’s vengeance, retribution for what they viewed as a depraved and immoral lifestyle.

Against this backdrop of death, Kushner’s play introduces us to a wide cross-section of Americans led by Prior (the excellent Aubrey Deeker), a young gay man afflicted with the virus. Although Prior is near death, his Jewish boyfriend, Louis (who explains that he “can’t incorporate sickness into his sense of how things are supposed to go”), abandons him for a closeted gay Mormon (a superb Luigi Sottile) whose wife, Harper (the marvelous Kate Czajkowski), is likewise exiting while he struggles to accept his sexual orientation. Other characters of note include Joe’s mother, Hannah (Mary Elizabeth Scallen) and the Republican lawyer Roy Cohn (Stephen Novelli in a surprising and effective portrayal). A loathsome man with an infamous past and a close association with the Reagan White House, Cohn contracted AIDS yet denies his homosexuality. “Roy Cohn is a heterosexual man who fucks around with guys,” he explains to his incredulous doctor.

The entire ensemble is strong, but the standout performance is by actor James Ijames, who portrays Belize, the colorful drag queen and nurse. In Ijames’ smart, nuanced and wonderfully honest performance, he reconciles Belize’s many seemingly contradictory characteristics. Flamboyant but also practical, simultaneously thoughtful and carefree, talkative and a great listener, Ijames reveals Belize’s passion and playfulness without ever playing to the audience or shamelessly exaggerating Belize’s effeminate mannerisms for a few cheap laughs. Ijames lights up the stage each time he appears, illuminating even the play’s darkest passages as Belize refuses to let the horrors of the epidemic temper his zest for life.

Angels doesn’t sear your soul or reduce you to tears, but it is impossible to watch Zizka’s production and not seethe with rage at the callousness and willful ignorance with which the Republican Party greeted the epidemic.

Intellectually engaging and dramatically thrilling, the production’s greatest achievement is that Kushner’s 1991 play never feels like a historical artifact. Under Zizka’s direction, it is as fresh and urgent as the day it appeared and the three-and-half-hour running time leaves us wanting more.

In Zizka’s staging, the angel’s appearance is more memorable than in the original Broadway production; she literally crashes through the lights high above the stage and then hovers in mid-air over a terrified Prior. Spreading her wings, she is a sight to behold as she majestically proclaims: “The Great Work begins: The Messenger has arrived.” Although it is the play’s final line, it reads more like a beginning than an ending—and with good reason: On Sept. 12, the Wilma will open next season with a 20th anniversary production of Angels in America Part II: Perestroika. According to Wilma spokesman Johnny Van Heest, audiences will also have the opportunity to view both parts I and II of Angels on a single day, which is an experience that is as unforgettable as it is deeply enriching.