“Angels in America” has the subtitle “A Gay Fantasia on National Themes.” It is, in some essential way, about gay life and AIDS and America during the 1980s. But on another level, it is as much about gay people as “Romeo and Juliet” is about Italians. The more enduring theme of “Angels in America, Part One: Millennium Approaches,” which opened last weekend at Penobscot Theatre, is love and death and America in the last years of the 20th century.
Tony Kushner has much loftier goals than to expose topical issues. He is topical, yes. And his play, which won the 1993 Pulitzer Prize, isn’t afraid to take the plunge into the grand and gory sides of gay life. He also isn’t afraid to look at history with a critical eye. But Kushner is a poet as Tennessee Williams and Samuel Beckett were poets. As such, Kushner presents an audience with an invitation to use its imagination, to look at the profane and to discover the sacred all at the same time.
Mark Torres, artistic director at Penobscot, takes up that invitation with an equally creative eye. It’s easy enough to say his cast should speak up A LOT, that the actors should, at this point, know better than to trail off dramatically at the end of an emotional line. And that a woman wearing wings and being flown awkwardly onto the stage runs the risk of being very hokey indeed.
Truth is, though, this is one of the most provocative shows staged at the theater — matched only by Torres’ 1995 production of “Amadeus.” A three-act play, “Angels” runs three hours, but the performances are engaging enough to make the time pass busily. Some moments in the middle drag. Generally, however, Torres has paid impressive attention to the detail and “event” of the play, which centers on two couples — one gay and battling AIDS, and one nominally heterosexual and fighting both depression and sexual confusion.
The cast moves about in this episodic plot with silken facility. Ken Stack’s portrayal of New York lawyer and power broker Roy Cohn is disturbing and impetuous. Gregory T. Arata and Deborah Elz, as a Mormon couple facing its unspoken fears, are both sweet and shocking.
Robert Saoud plays the central character Louis as an unenviable man who nevertheless makes us look back at ourselves and our human frailty. He does so with grace and stature — even though Louis really has neither of these qualities.
Alison Cox, who plays several supporting roles, brings remarkable depth and tenderness to the heart of the play, and Catherine LeClair, who also shows up here and there, is dispassionate and angular in appropriate ways.
Despite the ensemble dexterity of the cast, the play really does belong to Ron Adams, as Prior, who is dying of AIDS. Adams is funny, poignant, and, best of all, thoroughly honest. He gives himself over to this role — whether he’s crying or joking or dressing in drag. And the audience receives the gift of his talent.
The next in line for major applause is Reginald Wright, as the queen bee Belize. In his elegant performance, Wright cuts through the moral clarity of this character, and delivers the life force of Kushner’s messages.
While Torres and the actors expose the inner worlds of the characters, set designer Jay Skriletz makes the most of the outer world of the Opera House. The rocky, cold stage walls underscore the urban realism of the play (which is also fantastic at times). Set pieces are rolled on and off to depict corporate offices, hospitals, apartments and parks. Lynne Chase’s film noir lighting sets the melodramatic moods, and Andrew Mead’s sound design screams and coddles and dances. The technical staff is right out there, too, pushing buttons and making calls in front of the actual stage. As with the characters, the techies have no secrets from the audience, and we’re left thinking there’s no place to hide. Not in Bangor. Not in America.
A production of “Peristroika,” which is Part II of “Angels in America,” will be performed at the end of next year’s season. The best compliment to this year’s “Millennium Approaches” is that it makes you want more.
In a recent phone conversation, Oskar Eustis, who directed the first production of the play in 1990 at the Mark Taper Forum in Los Angeles, said he felt “Angels” was going to enter the pantheon of about a dozen acutely significant plays written since World War II. Torres’ production illuminates that comment by transporting the audience through this most American odyssey.
Penobscot Theatre will present “Angels in America” at 7 p.m. Thursday, 8 p.m. Friday, 5 p.m. Saturday and 2 p.m. Sunday through May 10 at the Opera House on Main Street in Bangor. For tickets, call 942-3333.