A magnificent 'Angels' soars to heights

Posted: June 01, 2012

Tony Kushner's Angels in America is a massive and magnificent play, and Wilma Theater ends its season with a massive and magnificent production of Part One: Millennium Approaches. This is the first of two, each about 3½ hours long; the second, Perestroika, will open Wilma's 2012-2013 season.

Written in 1991, the questions are obvious: Now that the millennium is behind us, now that AIDS is no longer the doom-laden plague in America that it was 20 years ago, now that the Soviet Union is dismantled and perestroika has been accomplished, does the play hold up?

The answer is a resounding "Yes!" This is living, thrilling theater, brilliantly directed by Blanka Zizka with a roster of juicy roles performed by a splendid cast. Never have I heard or felt a Wilma audience as electrified as it was on opening night.

Angels is subtitled "A Gay Fantasia on National Themes." And what a lot of themes - all important, all fearlessly, profoundly developed: politics, economics, history, religion, sexuality, philosophy. It's about love and death and hope and risking change. And all that is contained in a vehicle of extreme and daring theatricality. And it's funny.

The plot is split between two couples: Prior Walter (the outstanding Aubrey Deeker, whose suffering and fear are palpable) and his lover, Louis (Benjamin Pelteson, who seems neither quite neurotic nor intellectual enough); and a married Mormon couple, Joe, played by Luigi Sottile, looking all broad-shouldered and open-faced as a closeted gay Republican lawyer, and Harper (Kate Czajkowski, excellent as his unhappy, pill-popping wife). A genius moment happens when Zizka has Louis and Joe enter simultaneously through opposite doors; they cross each other to announce to Prior and Harper that they are abandoning them.

Roy Cohn (Stephen Novelli, whose performance grows before our eyes to the superb climax of Act 3), proud of the judges he has controlled, the presidents he has made and unmade, counsels ruthless self-interest. Also crucial are Joe's mother (Mary Elizabeth Scallen shifts from this Salt Lake City matron to the ghost of Ethel Rosenberg with fine finesse) and the ex-drag queen registered nurse Belize (James Ijames subtly shades this role instead of camping it up; he reappears as Mr. Lies, the travel agent of Harper's hallucinations). Maia DeSanti as the Angel has a voice "like a viola," just as Prior tells us she has.

The production values are a wow: costumes by Oana Botez, sound design by Christopher Colucci, and a dazzling all-white stage, minimally furnished (designed by Matt Saunders) but immense and full of surprises.

I can hardly wait for Part Two in September.

Angels in America, Part One: Millennium Approaches

Through July 1 at the Wilma Theater, Broad and Spruce Streets. Tickets: $25-$51. Information: 215-546-7824 or www.wilmatheater.org.

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