Even if you saw Tony Kushner's 1993 Pulitzer Prize-winning drama about the AIDS crisis on HBO or Broadway, nothing will prepare you for the searing production of Angels in America Part I: The Millennium Approaches by the Chatham Community Players in their very intimate black-box theater. Seated in the three-quarter round, the audience is in the middle of the action, as the emotions swirl around their heads and the magnificent performances keep them riveted to their seats. This is theater at its finest!
Set in the mid-80s New York City, Angels in America Part I: The Millennium Approaches tells the story of the AIDS crisis through four male characters and their friends and families. Two men, the real lawyer Roy Cohn and a fictional Mormon attorney, Joe Pitt, deny their homosexuality; when the former is told by the doctor that he has AIDS, he rejects the diagnosis for the more palatable "liver cancer." In an attempt to lead a "normal" life, Pitt has married, but his sexual proclivities haunt him unmercifully. The other two men, a gay couple, try to deal with the dreaded diagnosis. The afflicted party, Prior Walter (Gus Ibranyi, above), scion of a long line of WASPs also named Prior, declines before our very eyes, from a vibrant young man to a physical shadow of his former self. His suffering is even more intense because his lover, Louis Ironson, fearfully deserts him to suffer alone.
Chatham Community Players veteran Robert Pridham has directed this poignant play with a masterful touch, eliciting stellar performances from a very talented and experienced cast. Richard Colonna is a profane, venal Roy Cohn (right), out to screw anyone he can, literally and figuratively. Just watching Colonna's Cohn juggle telephone calls while trying to talk to Joe Pitt is a show in itself. Scott Tyler's Pitt (left) is a bundle of nerves, trying to deal with his crazy wife Harper (superbly played by Morgan Vasquez as a walking neurosis), further his career without resorting to the chicanery practiced by Cohn and dealing with feelings that are considered sinful by his religion and his very Mormon mother Hannah, played with barely contained, buttoned-up judgment by Rosemary Wall.
But it is Gus Ibranyi (left) as Prior Walter and Salvador Navarro as Lou Ironson who perform the lion's share of suffering. Ibranyi has been on my radar for quite a while, and I have never seen him turn in a better performance. Whether he's lying still on a hospital gurney or crawling around the floor in pain, he will rip your heart out. Equally as mesmerizing, Navarro (below) shows he has more in his dramatic repertoire than El Gallo, which he played in CCP's last season's The Fantasticks. He may not be physically ill, but Navarro's Lou suffers mightily from abandoning his lover. Not only those stricken by this plague bear the brunt of its terrible outcome. I look forward to seeing more of these two actors.
Doug McLaughlin is tender as the nurse Belize; Sarah Pharaon is more than credible as Ethel Rosenberg (come to haunt a dying Cohn); and Chip Prestera is fine as the 18th century Prior Walter and Henry, the doctor who has to give Roy Cohn the bad news about his health. John Saul plays a variety of roles from rabbi to a medieval Prior Walter, ancestor of the current Prior.
On purpose, Chris Furlong's very spare set (a few chairs, a desk, a gurney, a wall) barely sets the scenes, thus allowing us to focus on the unfolding events. Richard Hennessy once again provides atmospheric lighting enhanced by Joe DeVico's unobtrusive sound. Beverly Wand's costumes and Tish Lum's props add to the somber effect—everything is black, white and gray. Ben Riesebeck's make-up makes the Kaposi sarcoma lesions and approaching Prior's death look very real.
Two decades after Angels in America Part I: The Millennium Approaches was first staged to great acclaim—and Tony Kushner was celebrated for his dramatic bravery—a sea change has come over the way the general public (especially the younger folks) views homosexuals: Today, we aren't arguing over their right to "come out of the closet"; we're fighting over whether they should be allowed to marry! And talk about AIDS has faded to a whisper, what with the cocktail of drugs that enable HIV-positive people to lead long, productive lives.
Nevertheless, we should not be too complacent about these changes. For once upon a time, an entire group of people were vilified, ostracized and even killed for their sexual orientation, and an entire generation was lost to a plague-like illness that didn't get the notice it deserved because it struck this particular group of outcasts. Even President Ronald Reagan's response was "halting and ineffective," according to his biographer, thus allowing those infected initially with this mysterious disease—all gay men—to be targeted with an unprecedented level of mean-spirited hostility. Never again should we let such shameful things happen or our fellow human beings.
I have always believed that theater can teach its audience many things: how and why people act the way they do, the mores and values of other cultures, the progression of historical events, to name just a few. Angels in America Part I: The Millennium Approaches does all this and more. The production now on the boards of the little Chatham Playhouse is a real tour de force, an impressive example of the very best in playwrighting, directing and acting. Please do not miss this production.
Angels in America Part I: The Millennium Approaches will be performed at the Chatham Playhouse, 23 North Passaic Avenue, Chatham, through October 26. For information and tickets, call the box office at973.635.7363 or visit online at www.chathamplayers.org.
Photos courtesy of Howard Fischer.