The Great Work Begins: ANGELS IN AMERICA, PART ONE at The Wilma Theater

Some plays become part of theatre history almost immediately. When ANGELS IN AMERICA first took New York by storm almost 20 years ago, Broadway audiences were treated to an epic that was simultaneously classic in its scope and utterly unique in its voice—as playwright Tony Kushner himself described the work in its subtitle, it was truly “a gay fantasia on national themes.” Audiences in the early 1990s were invited to examine issues of love, loyalty, honor, assimilation and tolerance through a gay lens. Kushner dared to end his epic with hope and confidence, with one of the characters reminding us directly that we were all, or at least could be, “fabulous creatures.” The Wilma’s current production of PART ONE: MILLENNIUM APPROACHES (PART TWO will arrive in September) raises the question—how much closer are we to achieving “fabulousness” in 2012?

As it happens, the Wilma has provided Philadelphia audiences an ideal opportunity to consider that question, because their production is prickly, lively, frequently hilarious, and occasionally shocking—that is, everything that Kushner’s script deserves. As the individual stories emerge from the ensemble, we are reminded just how wide the spectrum of human behavior can be, as well as the depth of our capacity for self-delusion. For example, the neurotic, craven Louis (Benjamin Pelteson, capturing Louis’ charm and quick wit as well as his weakness) flees his long-term relationship with Prior (a commandingly fabulous Aubrey Deeker) when Prior starts exhibiting the horrific effects of AIDS. Nevertheless, Louis is always ready with tortured and convoluted rationalizations for his behavior. Meanwhile, the unhappily closeted Mormon, Joe Pitt, fervently believes, or thinks he believes, that prayer can help him “kill” his dreaded gayness; his unhappy wife Harper hides in a drug-induced world of hallucinations. The arch-villain of the piece, the real-life lawyer Roy Cohn, is perhaps the biggest self-deluder of all, never admitting his sexual orientation even as the onset of AIDS is upon him. As the characters’ stories intersect, we see humans behaving believably (that is, not always admirably) in the face of one of the country’s, and the world’s, biggest crises.

Director Blanka Zizka wisely trusts her talented cast and finds many inventive ways to use Matt Saunders’ deceptively simple set. Along with the aforementioned Pelteson and Deeker, the cast makes the most of some of the sharpest dialogue an actor could wish for. Luigi Sottile lets us see the roiling internal struggle of the seemingly priggrish Joe. James Ijames, as the flamboyant nurse Belize, lands his punchlines with aplomb and creates an engagingly ideal friend; Kate Czarjkowski finds the lost, disappointed child in the often-manic Harper; and Stephen Novelli gives us a colorful, funny, and profane Roy Cohn without stinting on Cohn’s genuine historical menace. (It should be noted that nearly all the cast are required to perform multiple roles, which they do with great zest.) Mary Elizabeth Scallen does well as Joe’s very Mormon mother and in a couple of trousers roles (a rabbi and a doctor), but she gives the play’s only ill-considered performance as the executed (alleged) spy Ethel Rosenberg—it’s a part that needs to be deadpan and low-key, but Scallen plays her as the hostess with the mostest, an off-key choice on director Zizka’s part. Finally, Maia DeSanti acquits herself well in several quick appearances, and gets to make at least one very memorable entrance.

ANGELS IN AMERICA, PART ONE: MILLENNIUM APPROACHES is one of a handful of important American plays, and the Wilma Theater serves it well. This production will not only entertain you, but it will also do something even deeper: it will challenge you to be a better person—and, perhaps, a more fabulous creature.