A trim ‘Angels in America; at What A Do
SPRINGFIELD, Mich.–For young people today, it’s easy to forget what it was like to be gay in the 1980s (or even earlier). AIDS was a fatal diagnosis, coming out was fraught with life-damaging consequences and even those who were gay often held hateful stereotypes of what that label meant.
It was that environment in which Angels in America: Millennium Approaches is set—Tony Kushner’s award-winning, highly metaphorical play which What a Do is currently performing.
The play opens at a funeral, with a wooden coffin dominating the stage. Sue Kernish does a wonderful job as Rabbi Isidor Chemelwitz who must launch the audience into this nearly three-hour journey of the real, the metaphysical, the political, and the spiritual. She spins a story, telling us that she didn’t need to know the deceased personally in order to know her story and understand her journey. Kernish masters a heavy accent while ensuring that she can still be heard clearly and moves with the weight of generations on her shoulder. (She also does a fine job in her other roles, especially as the Mormon mother who is sure people can snap out of such things as being gay or schizophrenic.)
While there are 10 actors in this play, the main stories focus on five people: the hard-nosed lawyer Roy Cohn (Dave Stubbs), his Mormon protégé Joseph Porter Pitt (Andy Helmboldt), his Valium-addicted, emotionally damaged wife Harper Amaty Pitt (Betsy King), the recently diagnosed with AIDS Prior Walter (Mark Switzer) and his death-phobic boyfriend Louis Ironson (Christian Perez).
Switzer and Perez make a compelling couple and the heartbreak is real and aching. Switzer breathes a confidence and fragility into Prior, making him easily one of the most sympathetic and authentic characters on stage. He can be snarky and snide, but only in a way that makes him more interesting and adorable. He’s a fighter who is hurting both physically and emotionally and doesn’t understand the visions that he’s having.
Perez is one of What a Do’s young actors and it is impressive that a junior in high school can carry the weight of this role the way he does—fully immersing himself into the struggle of being in love but not being able to deal with his lover’s sickness. He fully examines and presents the guilt, the grief, and the inability to do what he knows he ought to do.
King has always played the emotionally damaged well at What a Do, and she continues to in this role. Her Harper is isolated, alone and delusional. King taps into that loneliness and plays well the tension and conflict between her and her husband. King and Helmboldt make sure that their chemistry is always off, that they never appear as a comfortable couple, even their “buddy kisses” fully playing as the odd substitute for what should be passion in a young couple’s life.
Helmboldt starts out stiff, but as his character becomes more self-aware,he becomes more compelling. It’s clear Joseph wants to do the right thing by society and his church’s standards, to be the “good man” he claims to be and can only be by denying his most true self. But as he is pushed from all sides—by Cohn, by his wife, by his mother—his search for freedom and self identity become more intense.
Stubbs, who has put in several outstanding What a Do performances in the past, is playing the one character in the play based on a real person, Cohn—the lawyer who helped prosecute Julius and Ethel Rosenberg and was part of both the Red and Lavender Scare with Joe McCarthy. His portrayal in this production tends to be limited to loud. He shouts a lot and bullies people, but it isn’t until late in the show that we see anything but this one note on what has the potential to be a complicated character.
It is a long show and Director Randy Wolfe made some cuts to the show to try to keep it under control. It’s a difficult play to cut, for there is so much in it that involves visions and intersecting storylines that taking out some scenes and lines leaves the play more confusing and harder to understand than it already is.
Scenic Designer Samantha Snow has become an expert at creating symbolic stages in the What a Do space. She creates four different stages that can be moved between quickly—so much so that there probably could have been fewer blackouts between scenes than there were.
All that said, Angels in America remains a compelling, historic play that is an important part of the theatrical canon. It’s well worth seeing and What a Do has always committed to compelling presentations of theater classics. This is no exception.
Run time: 7:30 to 10:20