A passionate 'Angels in America' soars at the Wilma

Maia DeSanti and Aubrey Deeker as the Angel and Prior Walter, who finds he has been chosen as the world's new prophet.
Maia DeSanti and Aubrey Deeker as the Angel and Prior Walter, who finds he has been chosen as the world's new prophet. (ALEXANDERIZILIAEV)
Posted: September 21, 2012

At the end of Angels in America Part Two: Perestroika, the characters talk about the politics of a changing world: "You can't wait around for a theory. The sprawl of life, the weird . . . interconnectedness . . .. Maybe the sheer size of the terrain."

This is the perfect description of Tony Kushner's monumental Angels in America.

And although there's no lack of theories (both within the play and about the play), the sheer force of it as life lived, the sprawl of these complicated, passionate relationships through these two long plays ( Part Two is 3¾ hours), is what creates its theatrical grandeur. That and Blanka Zizka's fine direction of the Wilma Theater's terrific cast.

The story continues: Prior Walter (Aubrey Deeker) has AIDS, and as his condition worsens he discovers he has been chosen as the world's new prophet by the Angel (Maia DeSanti) who crashed through the ceiling at the end of Part One. His ex-lover, Louis (Benjamin Pelteson), has taken up with Joe (Luigi Sottile), whose marriage to pill-popping Harper (Kate Czajkowski) is a disaster. Joe's mother, Hannah (the luminous Mary Elizabeth Scallen), has arrived from Salt Lake City, and Belize (James Ijames) nurses Roy Cohn (Stephen Novelli, heartbreaking and horrifying), who is now dying.

Besides rich and complex characters, Kushner has daringly created his own cosmology and theology - a failing, desperate heaven of angels who have been abandoned by God - creating, necessarily, a messy and chaotic Earth. The play is necessarily messier and more chaotic than Part One, in which things had just begun to fall apart. It follows that the Wilma's huge, white stage (set design by Matt Saunders) is disordered now, since the Angel's arrival wrecked the place at the end of Part One. Its very size sometimes seems to work against the play; Zizka, using all of it, keeps some scenes too far from the audience, and the actors' exits can be awkward and distracting.

Part One ends with "The Great Work begins." Part Two ends with "The Great Work begins." Kushner's great forward-looking non-endings are retrospective as well as admonitory; we, 20 years later, live in the midst of that "Great Work" of the world. The danger is that the contemporary production becomes smug in a knowledge it didn't have decades ago when the scripts were new, and Deeker's delivery of Prior's last speech to the audience is delivered with a finger-pointing self-importance that seems unlike his character.

Democracy and Marxism, pessimism and optimism, comic and tragic, ghosts and flesh, capitalism and socialism, abandonment and loyalty, dreams and reality, progress and stasis, gay and straight, Jews, Christians, Mormons - Kushner has stuffed everything into this gorgeous, enormous two-part play about forgiveness and hope.


Angels in America, Part Two: Perestroika

At the Wilma Theater, Broad and Spruce Streets, through Oct. 21. Tickets: $39-$66. Information: 215-546-7824 or www.wilmatheater.org. (There are also eight performances of Part One: Millennium Approaches.)

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