Wings and a Prayer

Playwright Tony Kushner took on an astounding feat when he wrote Angels in America. The six-and-a-half-hour play consists of two parts--"The Millennium Approaches," in which everything begins to come undone, and "Perestroika," in which all of the play's conflicts are more or less resolved. It is so Big that it was a Pulitzer Prize-winning mega-Broadway hit, and we've already had the road show to prove it.

Now the ever-ambitious Hunger Artists Ensemble Theatre has staged the first local production, and it, too, is something of a revelation. Under Chip Walton's dynamic direction, nuances emerge that were nearly invisible in the Broadway version, and Walton has elicited four excellent performances from local actors that leave the road show's performances in the dust. It is quite an achievement. And yet, something is missing--something in Kushner's play itself.

The problem is reminiscent of what happens when movie spectacles move from the big screen to television. Lawrence of Arabia, Dr. Zhivago, even Star Wars are still worth watching on the small screen because they have good writing, interesting characters and a Larger Point. But the TV screen reveals something else about these films: that special effects and the sweep of spectacle matter, and that without them, something vital is lost.

So it is with Angels. The intimate nature of the stage at the Acoma Civic Center denies the play the illusion of breadth--a magical illusion that in Broadway's larger theaters helped gloss over some of Kushner's less developed ideas and underscore his riveting character development. Walton's small-stage adaptation of the play is reminiscent of testing spaghetti: He has tossed the noodles against the wall, and only those that were fully cooked have stuck.

In Kushner's story, Prior Walter is dying of AIDS. His longtime companion, Louis, can't take the heat, so he ducks out of the kitchen. But Prior's old friend Belize, a nurse in the AIDS ward at the local hospital, sticks by him, comforting him through the dark moments and, whenever possible, blistering Louis with his scathing sarcasm.

In a parallel plot, repressed Republican lawyer Joe Pitt pulls away from his increasingly needy wife, Harper, who is blessed (or afflicted) with visions. Joe has not yet faced up to his own homosexuality. But in a metaphysical twist, the infamous Roy Cohn, a closeted gay who was the henchman to Joe McCarthy, spiritually adopts Joe as his son and successor. At the end of Part One, an Angel appears to Prior Walter: The dying man has been chosen.

"Perestroika" is the most satisfying of the two plays. In it, we learn just what Prior has been chosen to do. It seems the Creator of the Universe withdrew from planetary concerns in 1906 (the year of the San Francisco earthquake), and the heavenly bureaucrats have subsequently been overwhelmed by the mess human beings have created on the planet. So their message to the denizens of earth is: Just stop. Stop reproducing, stop evolving, stop messing stuff up. The angels are kind of like the Southern Baptists--it's all moving a little too fast for them.

Meanwhile, Cohn is dying of AIDS, Harper finally finds herself, Joe's mother finds a new son to take his place, Louis learns to love more unselfishly, and Prior confronts the heavenly angels with the facts: Change is inevitable. The last speech of the show, Prior's benediction, comes as a break in the gloomy clouds of the play--a bright dawn of human compassion.

That beautiful speech captures an emotional high that the viewer takes into the night. But Prior's character fades quickly in memory. It is Roy Cohn who lives on afterward--that evil, greedy, power-hungry monster of political depravity and pride. It is a brilliantly written role, and in the Hunger Artists production, it is brilliantly realized by Terry Burnsed. This immensely inventive actor has transformed his voice, his bearing, his every gesture to take on the monster's persona so completely that he actually starts to look like him.

Curt Pesicka makes a fine, sensitive Prior, true enough to Kushner's original character, though a bit less whiny. Richard Nelson is perfect as Louis--he keeps the role honest, aching and smart, avoiding stereotypical gay and ethnic behavior. And K. Osiris Wade is a revelation as Belize. He is graceful, funny and complex, and his extravagance never seems calculated.

Unfortunately, the women in the cast don't wear as well. Dee Covington makes a grave mistake in her interpretation of Harper. Mentally ill adults are not children, and to be lost and frightened is not to behave like a five-year-old. Kendra Crain makes a stunning Angel, but her performance lacks the eternal dignity and otherworldliness called for in the script. Margaret Amateis Casart is better as Hannah; it's a good, sturdy performance, though a trace more humor would have livened it up.

Angels in America is a rabble-rousing, in-your-face political diatribe, and while much of it is already dated, the politics and explicit sexual situations may be a tad much for some viewers. And Kushner's unexamined take on culture--America's is too rigid for him--is strident without being convincing. He doesn't realize that the trouble with all culture is that it is rigid. In order to maintain itself, it has rules, taboos and rituals. If those change, the culture changes, too, very often slipping into oblivion. Go ask the Amish. Or the Russians.

What Kushner ultimately overlooks is that American culture is the most permeable culture in the world. Everything affects it, everything changes it. And what may seem like glacial change to a person who, sadly, may be persecuted comes as "the shock of the new" to the vast majority.

Angels in America, through July 27 at the Acoma Civic Center, 1080 Acoma Street, 893-5438.

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