Brave Revue

T he truest test of any great piece of theater -- or any drama whose title is routinely appended with a superlative, has been produced for years on Broadway to great critical acclaim, or been handed any kind of trophy -- is to release it for public performance. Dropped onto homely backwater stages, Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? can be shrill; Death of a Salesman stuffy and slow.

I was fearful that the Actors Theatre of Phoenix production of Angels in America Part I: Millennium Approaches -- a truly great piece of theater that's been available to regional theaters for a relatively short time -- wouldn't measure up. I'd seen several magnificent productions of Tony Kushner's Pulitzer Prize-winning play over the past decade, and one very good road company that passed through Phoenix several years ago, and the memory of the play's impact was still with me. Kushner's operatic drama -- for which he won the Tony two years in a row, first for Part I and again for Part II, Perestroika -- comprises some of the smartest, most dynamic writing to grace the American stage in decades.

I'm delighted to report that ATP's Angels in America is a near-perfect production, and more than a little embarrassed that I suspected it might not be. Director Matthew Wiener has achieved the delicate balance of Kushner's intricate script, which billows between dreamy hallucination and earthbound polemic, with imaginative, quick-paced staging and a notable cast of local actors. The production's style is one of utter simplicity, a meaningful merger between Wiener's respect for the work and his desire to share his vision of it.

Told in a brilliant, shamelessly theatrical style, Millennium Approaches is an inquiry into fundamental themes: love, death, freedom and loyalty. Its story, an epic tale far too intricate to recap here, is told by a collection of captivating characters, some historical, others invented. Mostly, Kushner's "Gay Fantasia on National Themes," as it's subtitled, concerns two couples -- one gay, the other presumably straight -- whose lives and romances are unwinding in the age of AIDS.

It takes guts to write a drama so full of laughs, whose principal characters include Roy Cohn, a Valium-addicted housewife, a gay man visibly dying of AIDS and an angel. It takes more guts -- and a lot of great acting -- to do justice to a script as complex and vital as Kushner's, and Wiener and company meet the challenge with great aplomb. Natalie Messersmith is both subtle and humorous as Harper, the mad housewife who deepens our perspective on sanity. As Louis, Christopher M. Williams possesses both the warmth and magnetism essential to keep us from hating him for abandoning his lover. Oliver Wadsworth's Prior Walter starts out as a scrawny stereotype who's transformed into a survivor, first rationalizing his absurd situation as a cosmic joke, then bursting into tears of pain, but never once losing our sympathy. Rusty Ferracane's equally conflicted Joe Pitt, who's alternately animated with rage and frozen with fear, is just as compelling. But if there's a "best" performance, it belongs to the fiercely energetic Jon Gentry, who never sugarcoats Roy Cohn's relentlessly nasty view of life.

No less delightful are the ensemble players, particularly Cathy Dresbach, whose roles cross gender lines, usually to good effect. Susan Johnson Hood's creative costuming and Jeff Thomson's set, dominated by antiseptic industrial pipes and a monolithic wall of faux stone, are enhanced by Paul Black's rich, inventive lighting design.

The evening is long -- over three hours -- and nearly every moment is priceless. This post-millennial Angels in America delivers its solemn message and bitter laughs with all the style of a much more expensive production. Who says this isn't a theater town?