All Hail Intiman’s ‘Angels in America’

Angels in America, photo by Chris Bennion.

Angels in America, photo by Chris Bennion.

Anticipation for Intiman Theatre Festival’s Angels in America has been building for months. This repertory production is a rare chance to see Tony Kushner’s two-part magnum opus in full, and it’s attracted some of Seattle’s top acting talent and a design team to match. Part One: Millennium Approaches opened last week (Perestroika opens Sept. 5) and it’s a spectacularly acted, pristine production of an intricate story. This epic production is more than the sum of its impressive parts.

More than 20 years ago Angels in America ripped open this country’s collective theatergoing psyche, earning a heap of Tony Awards and the Pulitzer Prize for Drama in 1993. The Intiman production, directed by Andrew Russell, wrings every ounce of elemental, emotional resonance from the piece. Set in 1985, Angels takes place in the early days of the AIDS epidemic, when a diagnosis was tantamount to a death sentence and Reagan-era politics offered little help or protection.

The play centers on two couples: Prior and Louis, a gay couple happily(ish) together for four years, and Joe and Harper Pitt, a Mormon married couple who relocated from Utah to New York for Joe’s rising legal career. Things fall apart. Louis takes off when he finds out Prior has been diagnosed with AIDS; Harper falls deeper into a fearful Valium-haze as Joe struggles to repress his homosexual urges. Also facing an AIDS diagnosis is Joe’s mentor Roy Cohn, an old-school, right-wing lawyer based on the famous real-life McCarthy-ite. There are plenty of other folks in the mix: Joe’s unsmiling Mormon mother, Prior’s friend and drag queen-turned-nurse, Belize, and, of course, the anointing Angel.  

What’s incredible about Angels is that it manages to stay rooted very much in real life while launching into the narrative tropopause on a moment’s notice. Though strangers in real life, Prior and Harper end up in a shared hallucination. Cohn is visited by Ethel Rosenberg, whom he helped send to the electric chair. An Angel crashes through the ceiling of a New York apartment. It’s a theatrical fugue state, so clear and tightly woven that you wish you could just unscrew the top of your head and let this story pour in as it will.

As Harper, Alex Highsmith (a relative newcomer to that Seattle stage who I very much hope sticks around) delivers a sharply drawn performance of a woman vacillating wildly between rage and terror, escaping her confused misery in pills and an obsession with the disintegrating ozone layer. Adam Standley’s Prior is endlessly funny even in the face of excruciating pain, wide-eyed and fearful in the face of his Angel. Charles Leggett brings an illuminating layer of humanity to Roy Cohn—it’s so easy to play this man as a monster (which he is) but two-dimensional characters have no place in Kushner plays. When Leggett delivers Roy’s diatribe about why he’s not a homosexual (though he has sex with men), it actually, God help me, makes some sense, albeit in a painfully anachronistic way. Anne Allgood and Marya Sea Kaminski both skillfully shape-shift through a number of different roles throughout the evening, as does Timothy McCuen Piggee, who mines deep into the sassy-on-the-surface Belize.  

Jen Zeyl’s imposing set, inspired as it was by America’s civic buildings, is a malleable background for this complex show. After all, it has to travel from New York to Salt Lake to Antarctica to Central Park to Prior’s hospital room and back again. To the immense credit of both Zeyl and lighting designer Robert J. Aguilar, there wasn’t a moment of confusion about focus or location—a massive task in a show with this many short, overlapping scenes. To the credit of Andrew Russell and his cast, this three-and-a-half hour behemoth flew by without a moment of wasted space or breath.

Mark Mitchell’s costuming is so spot-on that you almost don’t notice how subtly period it is—the break in a pair of pants, the color palette of a sweater. When he stretches his couture wings (so to speak)—as he does with the Angel costume or the flowing baby blue outfits worn by Harper and Prior in their hallucinatory encounter—it’s truly breathtaking.

What’s still astonishing about Angels is Kushner’s ability to treat life’s tragedies with equal importance—big or small, personal or public—crucially linking the personal with the political. Angels in America may be a call to arms, but unlike so many works born from the AIDS crisis, this isn’t a polemic. It’s a fantastical story at once crushing, inspiring and elevating. To feel the ground cracking under your feet (whether in your world or the world) is a tipping point of galvanizing terror; it’s what you do after that matters.

Above: Adam Standley and Marya Sea Kaminski, photo by Chris Bennion. Angels in America runs through Sept 21., tickets available here.