Theater Review: Civic ‘Angels: Perestroika’ intense, provocative
“Angels in America: A Gay Fantasia on National Themes” is a Pulitzer-Prize-winning epic play in two parts that explores homosexuality and the human side of the AIDS epidemic in the context of the social and political realities of the 1980s.
This month, Civic Theatre of Allentown is marking the 20th anniversary of its 1997 production of “Angels” with back-to-back performances of “Parts One and Two,” with both parts concluding May 20.
“Part One: Millennium Approaches” was reviewed by The Press on opening night, May 5. This review of “Part Two: Perestroika,” which opened May 11, is based on the May 12 performance.
Civic Theatre Artistic Director William Sanders, who also directed the 1997 production, has successfully met the formidable challenges in “Perestroika,” both in terms of staging and subject matter. Compared to “Millennium,” this script is more complex, intense, metaphorical and, at times, provocative. There are scenes that may not be to everyone’s liking, but Sanders has handled them tastefully and with sensitivity.
Written by prolific playwright Tony Kushner, and premiering more than one year after the first part, “Perestroika” spans the years 1985-1990, which were highlighted by the last term of President Ronald Reagan, the fall of the Berlin Wall, and the end of the Cold War.
“Part Two” picks up the lives of the eight main characters where “Part One” leaves off, but there is much that is different. As one character laments, “Everything is changing.” And that is where the angels come in.
Flipping the 1960s contention that God is dead, Kushner’s angels reveal that God isn’t dead, he’s just run away from home. It seems that mankind’s progress and ability to change caused Heaven to deteriorate, so God left. A high-flying emissary Angel (Joann Wilchek Basist) is sent to Earth to recruit AIDS victim, Prior Walter (Will Morris). He is to be a messenger to urge mankind to “stop moving,” in the hope that if that happens Heaven will be restored.
Prior rejects the role of messenger, but agrees to visit heaven and meet with the other angels. As Prior, Morris delivers a powerful monologue on why man can’t stop, and offers a glimmer of hope in the face of his own death, as well as for the millions dying of AIDS. Holding on to life, he says, is an “addiction,” and “death has to take life away.” In the end, he chooses life with AIDS over an eternity in Heaven.
“Perestroika” is full of messages and meanings delivered by conflicted characters skillfully played by each of the actors in the eight-member cast. Several notable performances deserve special mention.
Barry Glassman, with his raspy, bombastic voice, is the perfect overbearing Roy Cohn, but Glassman also never lets us lose track of Cohn’s humanity.
As Belize, Cohn’s nurse, Adam Newborn segues convincingly between his frustrated character’s outwardly sarcastic side, and his hateful inner self. “Roy is the worst human that ever lived,” he says of his dying patient in one outburst. “He isn’t human.”
There is an especially poignant moment when Louis (Troy Brokenshire) is conscripted into saying Kaddish for Cohn, who has just died. He falters, not able to remember the Hebrew words, so he is prompted by the ghost of Ethel Rosenberg (Susan Sneeringer), whose act of forgiveness is meant as a message to us all. Both Brokenshire and Sneeringer brought a fitting solemnity to the scene that is hard to forget.
As in “Part One,” the staging for “Perestroika” is in keeping with Kushner’s vision of “a pared-down style of presentation, with minimal scenery and scene shifts done rapidly.” Enhanced by the lighting design, sound effects and music, the approach is highly effective.
Tickets: Civic Theatre Box Office, 527 N. 19th St., Allentown; CivicTheatre.com, 610-432-8943