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Theater Review: “Angels in America”

“Angels in America” plays in rotating repertory through April 20, 2019 at Cygnet Theatre, 4040 Twiggs St. in Old Town San Diego State Historic Park
Photo credit:
Daren Scott

Is there anything left unsaid about Tony Kushner’s epic 1993 diptych “Angels in America,” a chronicle of the AIDS epidemic, the Reagan years, personal anguish and environmental degradation set in 1980s America?

Probably not, but it still behooves us to see it once in a while, if only to remind us of its brilliance as a piece of theatrical writing, its prescience as social history, and its relevance even today.

It’s been 25 years since “Angels” hit the American theater scene (and changed it forever), and Cygnet Theatre brings it back to San Diego through April 20. Part One (“Millennium Approaches”) opened last weekend. Part Two (“Perestroika”) opens on March 24; after that, they will run in repertory.

This monumental work is appropriately subtitled “A Gay Fantasia on National Themes,” which tells you both that several of the 30 characters are gay and that Kushner touches on many themes in the course of this three and a half hour play.

Cygnet’s artistic director Sean Murray has assembled a sterling cast of eight to stage this epic with delicacy, humor (yes, there are many funny lines) and pathos. “Millennium Approaches” introduces us to two couples and several other characters, both historic and imaginary.

Joe Pitt (Connor Sullivan), a Mormon lawyer married to valium-addicted, agoraphobic Harper (Rachael VanWormer), has a hilariously profane early scene with a real-life villain – D.C. fixer Roy Cohn (James Newcomb), friend of 1950s commie-hunter Joseph McCarthy and (until Cohn’s death from AIDS) longtime associate of the present occupant of the White House. Newcomb is terrific as the sleazy Cohn, who gets his way however he can. But he will eventually have to face one of his own demons – the ghost of Ethel Rosenberg, whom Cohn was proud to send to the electric chair when he was a prosecutor.

Now Cohn offers Pitt a job in Washington. Joe is tempted,but offended by Cohn’s ready use of profanity and the fear he knows the idea of moving will cause in Harper. Joe also has another problem: he is dogged by the agonizing denial of his own homosexuality.

Prior Walter (not a religious worker, but a sometime caterer) and his word processor boyfriend Louis Ironson (Wil Bethmann) are the other couple. The telltale sign of Kaposi’s sarcoma on Prior’s skin will precipitate more fear and anguish on both sides.

Bodine is heartbreaking as AIDS victim Prior, who nonetheless manages to maintain a poetic outlook, calling his illness “the wine-dark kiss of the angel of death.”

Bethmann’s portrayal of the conflicted Louis, who cannot stand to watch Prior waste away, is excellent. He flees and suffers self-loathing for it.

Sullivan is astonishing as Joe. He may be the most conflicted of all in this cast, wanting the resumé boost he’d get from working in D.C. but realizing what a sleaze Cohn is. And there’s the effect on Harper. And his own unadmitted homosexuality.

VanWormer’s Harper alternates between fearful cowering in the present and fanciful planning on future travel with her self-conjured travel agent Mr. Lies, played brilliantly (especially from a costume viewpoint) by Kevane La’Marr Coleman. And then she dons a suit and becomes a political player – Martin Heller, on the same level as Cohn. Coleman is also fine as the nurse Belize.

Rosina Reynolds plays a host of roles, all brilliantly: Joe’s mother Hannah Pitt, a rabbi who appears at the top of the show, Cohn’s doctor, Ethel Rosenberg and a few angelic characters as well.

And Debra Wanger also gets a workout in several roles, among them the Angel of the title, a nurse, a real estate saleswoman, a homeless woman and a Mormon mom, as well as lending her voice to two roles.

Great art survives time and its changes. Though “Angels” was written at least partly in response to the AIDS crisis and the Reagan administration’s failure to confront it (wonder of wonders, we have just recently heard of two patients cured of the disease), it’s astonishing how relevant the plays still are, politically and socially.

If you haven’t seen “Angels,” don’t miss it. If you have, see this version and the second, “Perestroika” to be reminded just how important theater can be.

The details

“Angels in America” plays in rotating repertory through April 20, 2019 at Cygnet Theatre, 4040 Twiggs St. in Old Town San Diego State Historic Park

Wednesday through Friday at 7 p.m.; Saturday and Sunday at 2 and 7 p.m.

Both plays will be shown in order on March 30 and April 7, 13 and 20.