Encore Michigan

Wayne State more than delivers on ‘Angels in America’

Review May 04, 2019 Patrice Nolan

DETROIT—The Hilberry Theatre picks up the thread of its production of the Tony Award- and Pulitzer Prize-winning drama by Tony Kushner, Angels in America, with Part Two, Perestroika. (You can read a review of Part One here.) This play is a fantastical look at America in 1985 as the as AIDS crisis forces the characters to consider where they stand amidst a national moral vacuum.

Part Two: Perestroika picks up in 1986 – with the same characters and the next part of their story– but the play stands on its own. To offer a literal plot summary is to do Kushner’s robust work and this Hilberry production a gross disservice. It is a thoughtful, precisely structured exploration of the profane and the divine. Subtitled “A Gay Fantasia on National Themes,” Kushner roots his play in the harsh reality of the 1980s AIDS epidemic by using an historical person, the vile Roy M. Cohn, as a plot fulcrum. And he embraces the fantastic by having the ghost of Ethel Rosenberg, whose execution Cohn helped mastermind, torment him from beyond the grave. Angels in America are in abundance here, from references to the Angel Moroni of Mormon teaching, to the Bethesda Fountain Angel of the Waters, to the unnamed angel who wrestled with Jacob, to the kind of angels who crash into bedrooms and recruit dying men to become prophets.

The protagonist of the story is Prior Walter, a 30-year-old gay man who has contracted AIDS and been abandoned by Louis, his partner of four years. Prior is being cared for by his friend Belize, who is a night-shift nurse assigned to the abusive Roy Cohn, who is dying of “liver cancer” (nod, nod, wink, wink) and being treated with a new, hard-to-acquire AIDS medication. Prior’s ex, Louis, has hooked up with a handsome man from his office, Joe Pitt. Joe is a Mormon and closeted gay man who moved to NYC with his wife Harper. She suffers from agoraphobia, depression and a valium addiction — although her moments of prescience suggest that her mental anguish is symptomatic of some higher (divine?) insight. Joe’s mother Hannah arrives in NYC (after selling her house in Salt Lake City) in time to care for Hannah and try to “recover” Joe. Joe’s relationship with Louis is quickly becoming serious, but Louis has no idea that his gentle, conservative, devout lover is a protégé of Roy Cohn’s and responsible for promoting anti-gay legislation and other discriminatory legal decisions. It cannot end well.

This production by the talented Hilberry company, directed by Dr. Blair Anderson, is a true theatrical treat. Although it is set during a devastating epidemic (that claimed the lives of 100,000 people by 1991) it is never dreary and always inventive—rich with the spectacular. All of the actors play multiple roles, but each owns their primary character in compelling, authentic ways. Quint Mediate, as Prior Walter, lets us see how his character grows stronger even as he faces mortality and literally wrestles with angels. Jacob Chapman is perfectly grounded as Louis, the politically, progressively active Jewish man who is guilt-ridden about abandoning Prior; he must come to terms with his need for redemption. Tobias Wilson is delightful as Belize—solid, strong, and the most admirable character in the plays. Sarah Summerwell, as Harper Pitt, manages an incredibly credible on-stage transformation. Her journey from a woman dealing with mental instability to one who offers divine clarity is deeply satisfying. Matthew Smith, as Joe, performs the inverse of her transformation, dissolving from a confident and righteous young professional to a young man who simply does not know where to turn. John Bergeron is compelling and delightfully complex as Roy Cohn, by turns pitiful and evil right to the end. Lani Call embraces the role of Hannah Pitt (and multiple characters) by giving us an off-stereotype Mormon mother who is probably more incensed by her son’s abandonment of his young wife than by his homosexuality – although she finds both repellant. Jasmin Walker also performs multiple roles, but as The Angel is cosmically terrifying, consoling and sexual.

The scenic design by Sarah Pearline, with lighting by Andrew Holderfield, places all of the play’s action within a superstructure best described as a secular cathedral. Scenic elements roll out to reveal various sets and a catwalk above the stage provides glimpses of heaven. Sound Design by Dan Morency is palpable—the audio element serves as an unseen character that thunders in the voice of God, sings with the birds in the park, and reminds us of the vibrancy and confusion of city life. Sacred choral music wraps the audience in suspended reverence, even as a solo jazz sax laces the sound with temptations of the flesh. And across the expanse of walk-in and walk-out, with two intermissions, the audio plays actual recordings of TV and radio coverage of the AIDS epidemic, from the earliest “wrath of God” pronouncements to the presentation of the AIDS Memorial Quilt in Washington, D.C., as part of the march for Lesbian and Gay rights.

Angels in America Part Two: Perestroika opens with a prologue delivered by the world’s oldest Bolshevik, who lashes out against the world and the crumbling Soviet government; he tells them they are changing too soon. They are as vulnerable, he says, as a serpent that sheds its skin before the new one has formed. This is referenced in the play when Joe refers to his Mormon temple garments (underwear) as his second skin, which he strips off to prove his eagerness to be with Louis. But the Bolshevik’s words are more truly echoed when the angel appears and urges Prior to embrace his role as the prophet of stasis: Stop changing. Stop moving. Stop creating and procreating.  Kushner ties up his epic with a bow at the end, set  five years later, in which the characters discuss the hopefulness of Perestroika and the new freedoms possible under glasnost. Pryor has embraced his role as prophet—not the moribund world urged by the angels, but of the great work of living, and healing, and loving in a damaged world.

This play is worth seeing on its own merits, but the Hilberry offers the opportunity to see both Part One and Part Two, in back-to-back performances, on Sunday, May 5 and Saturday, May 11. (This show is not appropriate for children and includes implied sexual acts and nudity.) The chance to immerse oneself in serious theatre doesn’t come this way often. Embrace it.

Click here for show and ticket details.

Read more about  Angels in America: Part Two–Perestroika 04/26–05/12

Read more about Hilberry Theatre