Wilma Theater's "Perestroika" Another Slice of Heaven

Now that the Philadelphia Live Arts Festival and Philly Fringe is over, it’s time for the city’s established, subscriber-based companies to begin rolling out their new seasons. This week, the Wilma Theater opens its season with an impressive production of Tony Kushner’s masterpiece Perestroika, the second play in Kushner’s epic Angels in America: A Gay Fantasia on National Themes.

The Wilma staged Angels’ first part, Millennium Approaches, last spring as the final production of its 2011-12 season. Despite the earlier production having garnered seven Barrymore Awards, the Wilma’s Perestroika is superior in every regard. While director Blanka Zizka’s production of Millennium was capable, even excellent at times, it was an angry, chaotic play, and the Wilma’s staging lacked the necessary sense of outrage and disorder. In it, the central character Prior (Aubrey Deeker) has just been diagnosed with the HIV virus, joining the growing community of gay New Yorkers who are contracting AIDS. It’s 1985, and the disease is decimating an entire generation of gay men. But no one in Millennium goes untouched by the illness, regardless of their health, religion, race or sexual orientation; its characters find that their lives are being irrevocably changed. The play ends with an angel crashing through the ceiling of Prior’s apartment, announcing that “The messenger has arrived.”

It is from this wreckage that Perestroika —the term most widely known as Mikhail Gorbachev’s mid-’80s program of economic and political reform in the Soviet Union—begins. It is still 1985, and the AIDS epidemic continues to ravage New York’s gay circles. However, whereas Millennium ended with a tremendous crash, in Perestroika, the initial shock of witnessing the world unravel is starting to wear off. Prior is beginning to come to terms with both his medical diagnosis and the departure of his longtime boyfriend, Louis (Benjamin Peterson), who moved in with a previously closeted Mormon law clerk named Joe (Luigi Sottile, in an assured, vulnerable performance). Joe’s mother, Hannah, who left Salt Lake City and moved to New York when Joe confided to her that he was gay, has found work at the Mormon Visitor Center. His estranged wife, Harper (the very affecting Kate Czajkowski), who became suicidal when Joe moved out, is slowly, fitfully beginning to emerge from her depression. Even the closeted HIV-positive Republican lawyer Roy Cohn (played magnificently by Stephen Novelli) is beginning to come to terms with his diagnosis.

Perestroika, with its relative calm following the calamitous conclusion of Millennium, is better suited to Zizka’s strengths as a director. Throughout her brilliant career, the majority of Zizka’s best plays are more intellectually engaging than feverishly passionate, and the big ideas Kushner tackles in Perestroika suit her talents perfectly. With the AIDS epidemic and the fall of the Soviet Union serving as the two primary catalysts for change, in Perestroika, Kushner contemplates the nature of progress. It’s a far-reaching examination that concerns itself not only with individual change, but also how societies, the planet and the entire cosmos are being torn apart and reassembled.

Zizka’s sharp, imaginative direction is not the sole reason for Perestroika’s success. The entire cast of Millennium Approaches returns for Perestroika, and without exception, their performances are vastly improved. Whereas Millennium featured one stand-out performance in James Ijames’ wonderful portrayal of Belize, the heroic drag queen nurse, Perestroika features several terrific performances. Particularly good is Maia DeSanti, who is both elegant and ominous as the Angel that visits Prior. Flying with astonishing grace, she is both beautiful and terrifying, and instead of humanizing her, the dry, mechanical cough DeSanti employs only adds to the Angel’s sense of otherworldliness. Perhaps no actor is more improved than Mary Elizabeth Scallen. Portraying four disparate characters—including Hannah, a deceased Ethel Rosenberg, an elderly rabbi and Roy Cohn’s pushy male doctor Henry—Scallen loses herself so fully in each character that one would never guess the four were being played by a single actress.

Despite the suffering brought on by the changes in their lives, the characters in Perestroika eventually move beyond the past and step into an uncertain future. As Prior eloquently states in the play’s conclusion, “We won’t die secret deaths anymore. The world only spins forward. We will be citizens. The time has come. The great work begins.”