Kushner’s epic about the AIDS years makes a triumphal return to Uptown
Angels in America is a play that shouldn’t work. It has tons of negatives, from the subject matter (the way we, as a culture, dealt with AIDS during the height of the plague during the Reagan Era) to the structure (ultra-realism combined with obtuse fantasy), plus its status as Part One (the last line of the play sets the stage for Part Two — an ending presaging a beginning).
But like the Chicago Cubs winning the World Series, Angels defies, meets, exceeds and even re-casts expectations. There’s something ineffable about its power over you that seems familiar yet bracing. It takes just eight actors to embody New York City’s complex relationship to gay issues during a contentious, scary time. It would be easy to get lost in declaring its brilliance as a “document” and cease serious criticism of it as a work of living theater — a “classic” as Twain defined it (what everyone praises and nobody reads).
The truth is more complicated. It’s a supremely funny play, especially during Act 1, when we meet the main players: Louis Ironson (David Meglino) and his lover Prior Walter (Garret Storms), who has just learned he is HIV-positive; notorious powerbroker Roy Cohn (David Lugo — the original small-handed vulgarian) and his protégé, upright Mormon Republican Joe Pitt (Kyle Igneczi), both of whom are deeply closeted in very different ways; Joe’s troubled wife Harper (Marianne Galloway), a pill-popping housewife haunted by mental illness, as embodied by her imaginary friend Mr. Lies (Walter Lee). Their stories weave the fabric of the play, which conjures with deft allusions the political, religious, social and emotional upheaval of a world gone mad that doesn’t seem to know it yet. “In the next century, I think we’ll all be insane,” one character opines; sound familiar?
Over three acts and as many hours, director Cheryl Denson breathlessly whisks us through this modest epic, which hasn’t been performed in Uptown since 1996. Employing a magnificent set by Bart McGeehon, the actors appear to undulate with the pulse of the play, breathing through the scenes in synch with the pace.
When Lugo is onstage, that pace is dizzying. Roy Cohn is the bravura role in Angels, a vampiric predator who feeds on chaos. As his body succumbs to AIDS, Lugo’s grasping for life becomes animalistic. It’s hard to outshine that kind of role, though Storms and Galloway come close. Storms, one of North Texas’ best young actors, overcomes Prior’s poutiness with a confident flamboyance that taps into the dark humor of the play. And Galloway’s Harper is revelatory — a standout portrait of a slow breakdown that resonates from her first appearance to her last. Everyone, though, is at the top of their games, including Pam Daugherty and Emily Scott Banks. You can feel the passion emanating from all of them. That’s the effect of angels, I guess: Hope in the face of misery. We can all use the lesson sometimes. •
ARNOLD WAYNE JONES | Executive Editor firstname.lastname@example.org
This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition November 11, 2016.