Stage makeup: Oliver Wadsworth puts his best face forward in Angels in America.
Jeff Kida

Heaven Sent

I've begun to wonder how it would be to see a mediocre production of Angels in America. Somehow, I've only seen resplendent, near-perfect stagings of this new American classic, most recently Actors Theatre's current production of both halves of the eight-hour play.

Angels in America, for the uninitiated, is two plays: Angels in America: Millennium Approaches and Angels in America: Perestroika. They won consecutive Tony Awards in 1993 and 1994 for best play, and the first installment won playwright Tony Kushner the 1993 Pulitzer Prize for drama before it even opened on Broadway. Each play is approximately three and a half hours long, and they're staged on consecutive evenings and in matinee configurations that allow audiences to see both plays in a single day.

Perestroika continues the stories begun in Millennium Approaches: Mad housewife Harper's embattled relationship with her husband, who's left her for Louis, a neurotic gay man, is ending. Louis has abandoned his own lover, Prior, who is dying from AIDS. Prior has been deemed a prophet by the single-minded angel of the title, who, like all the other angels in heaven, has been abandoned by God. Most of these people eventually cross paths with Roy Cohn, who's on his deathbed. Roy harangues the ghost of Ethel Rosenberg and his private nurse, Prior's pal Belize, until noisily expiring, thus ending Jon Gentry's most captivating performance to date.


Angels in America Parts I and II

Herberger Theater Center, 222 East Monroe

Continue through October 20. Call 602-253-6701.

If it's not apparent that Gentry's castmates -- all of whom are reprising their roles from last season's production of Millennium -- are turning in virtuosic performances, it's only because they handle their complex characters with such subtlety and grace. I dare to single out Oliver Wadsworth only because I can't not laud his way with a punch line, each of which he barks as if he were channeling Tallulah Bankhead and Frank Gorshin at once.

Jeff Thomson's striking, deceptively simple set -- a pair of crumpled stone columns, a framework of austere metal piping -- mirrors Kushner's motifs of insensitivity and decay: an eroding ozone, government corruption, declining immune systems, the death of religious faith. Paul A. Black lights these unfussy set pieces as if they're living things.

I was disappointed that the angel's comings and goings weren't goosed up with a pyrotechnic flying mechanism, which would have allowed the angel to hover menacingly over the rest of the cast, as in other Perestroika productions I've seen. But I have no other complaint about Matthew Wiener's faultless direction. Besides his command of Perestroika's parade of swift scene changes, Wiener brings a deeper understanding of Kushner's greater message, buried under piles of extraordinary situations and fascinating characters. He knows that Kushner's story is not simply a portrait of Reagan-era gay life, or a play about disease and politics, but a rumination on reconciling the existence of God in the face of suffering and evil. He spends less time convincing us that Harper and Prior aren't hallucinating while they're with the angel (as in a production I saw once in which each of the angel's visitations was accompanied by dreamy harp music) than he does punching up dialogue about faith and faithfulness.

Perestroika's uncluttered conclusion continues to bug me: Prior, Louis, Belize and Hannah are seated at an angel-bedecked fountain, and Prior interrupts their chat to address us directly with a where-are-they-now wind-up that concludes with a cheerful "The great work begins!" In a story that covers such high-toned moral and political ground, this ending has always felt tacked-on and unfinished to me.

Nonetheless, Angels in America is the most striking and thought-provoking piece of theater of the past several decades, and -- because of its daunting stage requirements and unpopular running time -- your chance to see such exquisite productions of both pieces won't come again soon. Go now.


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