Wings of Change
No question, the Angel at the center of Tony Kushner's Angels in America is a tricky creature -- neither divine nor malevolent, sometimes comical, highly sexual. She's not any old angel, either, but the angel of America, which accounts for the frequent stuttered iteration of the first-person pronoun: "I. I. I. I." She has a cosmology, this angel. She wants to hold back change and to persuade Prior, the character whose struggle with AIDS has called her forth, that he must help her do it. God was driven out of heaven by the eternal restlessness of the human race -- along with the San Francisco earthquake of 1906 -- and she and her fellow angels long for His return.
The play explores the contrast between movement and immutability in several ways: metaphorical, political, psychological. Belize, the wisest and most self-aware character, lyrically describes the sense of respite and time suspended brought on by a sudden snowfall. Later, pill-popping, hallucinating Harper finds herself in the frozen wastes of Alaska and discovers an Eskimo, who turns out to be her unloving husband, Joe. Dummies of a pioneering family in a Mormon exhibit breathe and talk, then rigidify into wax again. And almost all of the characters veer between repressing their thoughts and feelings and moments of revelation, all the while trying to find a footing amid the treacherous currents of history.
For Prior, the end of change and the acceptance of the angel's demand can only mean death -- and this despite the fact that she is a coupling angel, an angel who delights in bringing sexual ecstasy to human beings. In any case, Prior isn't going for it. He wants more life, no matter how much grief and terror it brings.
The action of Angels in America takes place during the Reagan years, when the president's brutal indifference to the plight of the gay community was matched by his cruelty toward the homeless and unemployed. The entire country was frozen into a defensive posture. Money that could have met human needs went to maintain the Cold War, which required obscenely expensive weapons systems (including many that were useless) and proxy wars played out in Central America and wherever else demands for social justice threatened the interests of American corporations. The only possible change seemed to be cataclysm.
By the play's end, two miracles have occurred. Prior has acquired the drugs that will stave off his death, and AIDS has begun its uneven progression from an almost inevitably fatal disease to one that can be managed almost indefinitely -- a development that decisively changed the ethos and culture of the gay community.
The other miracle: In 1986, Ronald Reagan and Mikhail Gorbachev met in -- of all places -- Reykjavik, Iceland. Reagan, the most narrowly militaristic president of our time until George W. Bush, came close to an agreement with Gorbachev on the elimination of nuclear stockpiles. This was the crack in the dam. Then came the torrent of cleansing water: the first major arms-reduction agreement, the lessening of hostility between Russia and the United States, the destruction of the Berlin Wall and the restructuring of Russian society, or perestroika.
Part II of Angels in America is called Perestroika. Some of the events in this section verge on sentimentality. The ghost of Ethel Rosenberg sings a lullaby to the dying Roy Cohn, the man who ensured her and her husband's execution -- though Kushner does puncture the moment with savage immediacy. On a flight to San Francisco, Harper describes her vision of the souls of the dead repairing the fragile ozone layer. And in an astonishing scene, when Cohn finally has died, Louis, Prior's faithless lover, recites Kaddish over the body, with the help of the invisible Rosenberg. Yet all of these scenes feel authentic, and not one of them is any odder or more unexpected than Reagan's sudden conversion to peace in the presence of his arch-enemy.
Roy Cohn remains unrepentant and unforgivable. Prior will not take back Louis, who abandoned him to his illness, despite the latter's repentance. Harper has lost her love for Joe, and Joe, despite his sincere attempts at virtue and his love for Louis, is ejected from the community and left to wander alone for the sin of facilitating Cohn's evil work.
In short, the moment of grace arrives and -- poof! -- it's over. Freed from Russian control, the former Yugoslavia devolves into murderously warring entities. Russia viciously represses Chechen attempts at autonomy. For the West, the Cold War is replaced with the war on terrorism, which requires, yet again, that money that could have cured disease and fed the poor be spent on armaments and plays itself out violently in nations where America has economic interests. No wonder the angel longs to stop history.
At Bas Bleu, the second part of Angels is directed by Terry Dodd, building on the work of Laura Jones, who directed the first half, and using the same terrific cast. I have already sung their praises ("Saving Grace," October 21) and have no hesitation in repeating the plaudits. Laura Norman is nothing short of wonderful as Harper, her dopey ethereality moderated by wry humor; Leonard Barrett Jr. remains the soul of the production as Belize -- and he's funny, too. Darren R. Schroader rises to the occasion as the script demands more emotion from him, and he communicates Joe's dignity as well as his pathos. Bruce K. Freestone is a convincingly glib, tough Cohn, and Denise Burson Freestone is touching both as Ethel Rosenberg and as the unbending Hannah Pitt. Wendy Ishii has all the power you'd expect from an angel, as well as a delightful earthiness, and, I swear, Todd Coulter's final blessing brought me to tears. I have one quibble with the direction: The music that crept in as Louis and Ethel recited Kaddish, and later during Harper's monologue on the ozone layer, was intensely distracting. The words provide all the music necessary.
As I write this, the U.S. election is yet to happen, and the beating wings of the angel of history grow louder and louder. By the time you read this piece, we may know whether our country has chosen rigidity and death or life and change.
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