Angels in America: The Dream Life of Angels

10.26.2010

By Aaron Hicklin

Has any play in the history of American theater wrung such tears from its audience as Angels in America? For those who saw it in the early 1990s -- it was first performed as a workshop at the Mark Taper Forum in Los Angeles 20 years ago next month -- Tony Kushner's epic meditation on the American body politic was as much an exercise in mourning as it was a piece of theater. 'On any given night you would hear wrenching sobs from the audience,' recalls Marcia Gay Harden, who played Harper Pitt, the pill-popping Mormon wife of closeted lawyer Joe. 'I think that made more palpable and tangible the experience of being there, because there was an active healing going on in the audience. People would sit down with their parents and say, 'Before this play begins, I want to tell you that I'm gay,' or 'Before this play begins, I want to tell you that I'm dying of AIDS.''

It's a powerful image -- scenes of affirmation and expiation within the auditorium coexisting with scenes of affirmation and expiation on stage. Nothing like it had been seen on Broadway. Not much like it has been seen since. It was gay, and it dealt with AIDS, but it went places gay plays and AIDS dramas hadn't gone before. It included Mormons, an uncompromising depiction of anal sex, and Roy Cohn -- the notorious counsel to Senator Joe McCarthy during the Communist witch-hunts. London's National Theatre declared it one of the 10 greatest plays of the century. The literary critic Harold Bloom included it in his Western Canon, one of only a handful of 20th-century plays so honored. It won the Pulitzer and a pair of Tonys -- one for each of the two parts, Millennium Approaches and Perestroika.

'The number of people I've spoken to who say that Angels changed their life -- I've heard that so many times,' says the actor Stephen Spinella, who won a Tony in 1994 for his performance as Prior Walter. 'It cracked a lot of things open, and people felt like for the first time they were sitting in the theater watching people tell the truth about the way the world works.'

The sense of catharsis and revelation was not limited to America. Declan Donnellan recalls similar scenes at London's Royal National Theatre, for which he directed a ballyhooed production of Angels in 1992. 'We'd get so many people who had AIDS come to see the show, and that was very harrowing for them,' he says. 'A lot of young gay people now can't really understand what struggles were fought 20, 25 years ago. It's like talking to young Russian people who have no real concept about the Soviet period.'

Yet the play's consideration of AIDS doesn't appear to have dated it. If anything Angels has cemented its reputation with time. An HBO adaptation in 2003 won five Golden Globes and a record-breaking 11 Emmys. And when the Denver Post recently polled 177 playwrights, directors, actors, and sundry theater professionals to ascertain the 10 most important American plays, Angels came in second, behind Death of a Salesman, and ahead of A Streetcar Named Desire. In the last year alone, new productions have been staged in cities as disparate as Sydney, Amsterdam, Toronto, and Washington, D.C. In October, the Signature Theatre Company will stage the first major New York City production since the play's original run ended in 1994, directed by Rent's Michael Greif.

Donnellan, who mainly directs Shakespeare, has a simple explanation for why Kushner's play has stood the test of time so well. 'I always saw Angels in America as a play about love,' he says. 'I think it's a classic, and it's a classic because it keys into great truths about human nature that are not going to be changed by a general election. For me, the experience of Angels in America has to do with what it's like to be Prior betrayed by Louis or what it's like to be Louis betraying Prior. We inhabit both those people, and whether you are gay or straight, it doesn't particularly matter -- it's the betrayal of love that counts.'

Spinella concurs. 'It's not a gay play, in an odd way -- it's about the American character. Tony just happened to write it from the point of view of gay people.'

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