A Grand and Visionary ANGELS IN AMERICA, PART II: PERESTROIKA at the Wilma

One of the greatest masterpieces of American theater of the late 20th century, Tony Kushner’s ANGELS IN AMERICA (1991-92) is a monumental two-part saga of the state of the cosmos in 1986, when the AIDS epidemic was exploding, the Iron Curtain was soon to fall (1989), the ozone layer was becoming depleted, and, consequently, religion, politics, and sexuality were being hotly debated. With the approach of the year 2000, Millennialism was rampant, forecasting the end of the world and the return of Christ to earth for humankind’s final judgment, and setting the stage for Kushner’s dramatic, funny, and visionary examination of life on the brink of apocalypse.

Following its critically acclaimed production of PART I: MILLENNIUM APPROACHES in the spring, which garnered the company seven major Barrymore nominations, the timing of the Wilma Theater’s staging of ANGELS IN AMERICA, PART II: PERESTROIKA is apropos, acknowledging not only the 20th anniversary of the play’s world premiere, but also the popular apocalyptic prognostications for 2012, based on cryptic Maya inscriptions (and addressed in a current exhibition at the University of Pennsylvania’s Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology, MAYA 2012: LORDS OF TIME).

With an epic running time of nearly four hours, including two intermissions and some recent rewrites by Kushner for the play’s 2010 revival, not a second goes by that isn’t engrossing and important. The staging is grand and illusory, employing an expansive white set by Matt Saunders that encompasses the world and the heavens, and an angel that floats and soars, ascends and descends, with grace and power. Dramatic lighting by Russell Champa evokes the story’s changing scenes and moods, expert sound by Christopher Colucci distinguishes between the characters’ everyday experiences and their otherworldly visions, and fabulously expressive costumes by Oana Botez visually underscore the play’s subtitle, “A Gay Fantasia on National Themes.”

Blanka Zizka’s direction is flawless, fully capturing the suffering, the hallucinations and delusions, and the humor that sustains us in times of pain and tragedy. It contains all of the narrative grandeur and clarity, and all of the symbolism and pathos that befit an epic. Zizka’s first-rate ensemble effectively delivers the chaotic thoughts and heightened emotions experienced by Kushner’s microcosm of humanity, along with his survivors’ personal growth, acceptance, and zest for life, despite its travails. Scene-stealing performances are turned in by the supporting cast of Stephen Novelli as the angry and closeted real-life Republican lawyer Roy Cohn, James Ijames as the flamboyant drag queen and nurse Belize, and Maia DeSanti as the magnificent Angel.

This slice of recent history through a gay lens still retains the force and impact it had when it debuted two decades ago, and perhaps now, with more effective medication and education to control HIV and AIDS, we can laugh more heartily at its humor, believe more fully in its ultimate optimism, and participate more confidently in “The Great Work” that is now, and always, ahead of us. The Wilma’s great work is nowhere more apparent than in this momentous production.