Encore Michigan

Wayne State brings ‘Angels in America’ to Detroit an reminds us how relevant it remains

Review February 10, 2019 David Kiley

DETROIT, Mich.-Angels in America has some timepiece chestnuts in the script such as radio sex doctor Ruth Westheimer, who today’s under-40s will hardly or not remember at all, and a reference to defunct yuppie furniture paradise Conran’s, which only exists a few places now like England and Paris. The Ronald Reagan speech that comes before the current production from The Theatre & Dance Department at Wayne State company, roots it in history too. But the Pulitzer-Prize winning play by Tony Kushner feels perfectly current as people struggle with sexual identities, the two major political parties war over LGBTQ civil rights, we all struggle to get proper healthcare, and prescription-drug addiction and simply being who you are is very much a thing in America.

The main change since Kushner wrote the play is that the gay population is not being decimated with AIDS. Those who are HIV-positive have the drug therapies available to make it a persistent but almost frozen disease that stays in remission.

The play has parallel and at times intersecting characters. There are multiple roles for some of the actors. And some characters appear as ghosts, or angels. There is a gay couple in Manhattan, Louis (Jacob Chapman) and Prior (John Bergeron), and Prior has AIDS. There is a Mormon, conservative couple–Joe (Matthew Smith), who is closeted gay and his wife Harper (Sarah Summerwell) who is an agoraphobic valium addict. And then there is Roy Cohn, a hatchet lawyer who made his bones as Senator Joe McCarthy’s staff attorney going after people in the early 50s for suspicion of communism, but who by the mid 80s was a New York power-broker, a closeted gay man who contracts AIDS and, incidentally and not part of the story, the Trump family lawyer and Donald Trump’s mentor.

Set in New York City, the story takes place between October 1985 and February 1986. And the play has been divided into “Part One,” which the university company is performing at The Hilberry Theatre. Part Two “Perestroika” will be performed April 26-May 12.

There is plenty of metaphor in the play. The story opens with the funeral of Sarah Ironson, an elderly Jewish woman, whose rabbi (Lani Call) eulogizes not only her, but the entire generation of immigrants who built a community for their children in America. Louis is the lady’s grandson. As Prior’s AIDS progresses, Louis is unable to cope with the sadness and moves out of their apartment. He gets emotional support by Belize (Tobias Wilson), an ex-drag queen and a hospital nurse.

Louis works at the same law firm as Joe, who Cohn is trying to get to take a job at The U.S. Justice Department in Washington. Cohn refuses to go public with his disease and tells the tabloids that he has liver cancer. He doesn’t want the tag of having AIDS or being gay. The irony that he was instrumental in making bogus cases against people for “Un-American” activities, and outed “queers” and “perverts” during the 1950s is as thick as concrete.

Meantime, Louis and Joe form a relationship and Harper retreats into drug-fueled escapist fantasies, including a dream where she crosses paths with Prior even though the two of them have never met in the real world. Joe drunkenly comes out to his conservative mother Hannah (Lani Call), who sells her house in Salt Lake City and travels to New York to try to intervene. Harper wanders Brooklyn believing she is in Antarctica as Joe and Louis tentatively begin their affair.

The main cast is excellent. Bergeron doesn’t at all resemble Cohn, but he more than adequately captures the man’s persona. Chapman plays both sides of his character very well, the in-love partner of Prior, the guilt-ridden man who leaves him and the glib cohort of Joe’s who teases the Mormon lawyer out of his Republican closeted shell. Summerswell nails Harper, especially the haze that comes from Valium addiction.

This excellent cast has fantastic material to work with, of course. Angels is an epic piece that every actor should get to tackle at some point in their careers.