There are few greater theatre-going pleasures than coming to grips with one of the handful of theatrical masterworks any given culture manages to create. If you have never seen the first half of Tony Kushner’s multi-award winning “gay fantasia on national themes,” Angels in America, you’re in for a rare treat with North Carolina Stage Company’s first-rate rendering of its first part, Millennium Approaches. If you’re already familiar with it, a revisit is strongly recommended.
The play, celebrating its 20th anniversary, proves the classic it immediately seemed, and this thoughtful, heartfelt, searing production — under the elegant and fiercely intelligent direction of Angie Flynn-McIver, equal parts comedy and tragedy, just as the playwright intended — benefits enormously from the intimate setting in which it is too-rarely seen.
How great a play is it? In the American dramatic canon, works with such long-lasting impact appear decades apart. O’Neill’s The Iceman Cometh and Long Day’s Journey Into Night make the list (with Angels encompassing the philosophical, political and personal scope of the former as well as the trenchant family concerns of the latter), as does Williams’ Streetcar Named Desire and Miller’s Death of a Salesman. Almost 30 years passed after Albee’s Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? before the culture-at-large paid so much attention to such a serious and caustically comic effort, and nothing since has reached so high so successfully.
Angels remains as strong, striking and relevant today as when its frank depiction of out and closeted homosexuals, furtive sex, AIDS, drug abuse, Mormons, Jews, racism and the brutal realities of financial and political power in the age of Reagan outraged certain elements in Charlotte sufficiently that actors in a 1997 production were threatened with jail. A state judge had to issue an order allowing the show to go on, and funding cuts in the millions mandated by Mecklenburg County commissioners to groups presenting “perverted forms of sexuality” were sufficient to lead subsequently to the demise of Charlotte Repertory Theatre.
Unsurprisingly, given the play’s unusual length (three-and-a-half hours, but don’t be daunted: It’s so good it seems to pass in an eye blink), its large cast of characters (21, played by a uniformly strong and versatile ensemble of eight actors), its frequent use of disparate but interlocking scenes played in parallel, and its hallucinatory elements (the pill-popping Harper Pitt — Rebecca Morris — and the AIDS-suffering drag queen, Prior Walter — Willie Repoley — experience voices and visions and, in one of the most remarkable moments in stage history, interpenetrate each other’s reality), Millennium is impossible to summarize.
Suffice it to say that — not despite but because of its broader sociological, economic and political analysis — this is a profoundly human play, at the crux of which is situated our frequent inability to live up to our own demands upon ourselves and one another — how husbands, wives, lovers, friends, co-workers and even strangers hide their problems, lie and mislead; how religion, power structures, race and sexuality control and betray us.
At N.C. Stage, the massive complexities of Kushner’s preposterously eloquent text — how few playwrights have ever sung to us with such a voice! — are presented with beautiful, clarifying simplicity. The design team has met matchless challenges delightfully, but the heart of the matter, as it must, resides with the actors, who bring unusual delicacy and depth to extraordinarily rich and often self-contradictory characters.
Let Michael MacCauley’s portrayal of Roy Cohn stand for the rest. Cohn, of course, was an infamous, right-wing powerbroker, an acolyte of Joe McCarthy who, like his friend Edgar J. Hoover, tried to take the secret of his homosexuality to the grave, to no avail. As played onstage by Ron Leibman and on film by Al Pacino, Kushner’s Cohn is a fire-breathing megalomaniac. MacCauley encompasses that passion and monstrosity but adds a dimension most others frankly lack: the human warmth, charisma, and, yes, charm someone who so skillfully manipulated so many surely possessed.
These qualities are the touchstone of the N.C. Stage Millennium, and what it may miss in sheer Broadway bravado is more than made up with all that is so gently revealed. If there’s one legitimate complaint that must be made, it’s that Angels’ second half, Perestroika, isn’t presently scheduled for the same treatment. Only that remains to provide complete satisfaction.
Here’s hoping that, twenty years on, Millennium Approaches is well-enough embraced by Asheville audiences that N.C. Stage is encouraged to bring us Perestroika next year.
Angels in America: Millennium Approaches, by Tony Kushner. Directed by Angie Flynn-McIver. Lighting Design: Rob Bowen. Set Design: James W. Johnson. Sound Design: Jason Waggoner. Costume Design: Ginny Speaks. Properties Design: Jessica Tandy Kammerud. Production Stage Manager: Connie M. Silver.
With Michael MacCauley (Roy M. Cohn, Prior 2), Andrew Hampton Livingston (Joe Pitt, Prior 1, The Eskimo), Rebecca Morris (Harper Pitt, Martin Heller), Willie Repoley (Prior Walter, The Man in the Park), Dusty McKeelan (Louis Ironson), Nathan C. Crocker (Belize, Mr. Lies), Jorja Ursin (Hannah Pitt; Rabbi Isidor Chemelwitz; Henry, Roy’s doctor; Ethel Rosenberg), and Vivian Smith (The Angel; The Voice; Emily, a nurse; Sister Ella Chapter; The Woman in the South Bronx).