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Theater & Dance

How Tony Kushner's Angels in America Saved My Life 

How Tony Kushner's Angels in America Saved My Life

Andrew Garfield
Andrew Garfield (Photography: Jason Bell)

A profoundly expansive work at London’s National Theatre. 

Angels in America is not an AIDS play. There. I said it.

It's a play about people and life and change and motion and love and betrayal and death and desire--about some people who happen to have AIDS and some who do not. It's a play about humans being human and it will never, ever be dated.

I knew this from the moment I first read the plays at the age of 19, long before I had seen the play produced. I was reminded of this, with my bloodstream racing and my tear ducts blooming, when I watched Tony Kushner's two-part play at London's National Theatre in May during a marathon seven-and-a-half hour Saturday performance of both Part One, Millennium Approaches, and Part Two, Perestroika.

When news of this revival struck, you could hear grumblings in the press that Angels was mired in the era of its debut, the 1990s, and did not warrant a remounting. This stance is myopic, a nearsightedness that runs counter to Angels' deep-seated expansiveness.


I write this only two days after having watched Angels at the National Theatre, and that word ricochets across my brain: "expansiveness." One of its definitions: characterized by richness, abundance, or magnificence.

Marianne Elliot's production, starring Andrew Garfield, Nathan Lane and Russell Tovey, along with a pool of top London theater talent, teems with possibility, with the breadth and gravity of an ample kind of expansiveness.

Angels has been part of my DNA since I read the plays as a teenager and watched the original Broadway production a year or so later. Emerson wrote that "In every work of genius we recognize our own rejected thoughts; they come back to us with a certain alienated majesty." I was closeted, miserable in my suburban Northern California life. I didn't see a future for myself. I knew in my bones, in my soul, that there was more to life than life as I knew it. But I couldn't find a path. Until Angels.

In Angels, the characters grapple with the hardest questions: Why are some people marginalized? Why do we damage each other when we all simply want to love and be loved? Why does change cause such fierce pain? Always. No matter how much or little you've lived.

Around the middle of Perestroika, an animatronic Mormon mother in a diorama representing the Mormon migration to Utah comes to life, embodied by a flesh-and-blood actor. Harper, coping with a loveless marriage to her closeted husband, Joe, asks the Mormon mother how people change. The Mormon mother's reply: Well, it has something to do with God so it's not very nice.

God splits the skin with a jagged thumbnail from throat to belly and then plunges a huge filthy hand in, he grabs hold of your bloody tubes and they slip to avoid his grasp but he squeezes hard, he insists, he pulls and pulls until all your innards are yanked out and the pain! We can't even talk about that. And then he stuffs them back, dirty, tangled and torn. It's up to you to do the stitching.


I burst into tears when I first read this in 1993. I've welled up every time I've thought about it for the last 24 years. I sucked back tears when the words were spoken during the National Theatre's sublime production. Because here's the thing: Change is always terrifying. And it never stops.

I've now been out now for longer than I was in the closet. I'm generally content. Gay men in the USA are not dying by the thousands as they were during the height of the AIDS epidemic. AIDS is still a global pandemic, though, and LGBTQ people are still fighting for their lives. And change, and kindness, and tenderness, and considerateness are still hard. We still commit atrocities--large and small--to each other.

One of the smartest directorial decisions Elliot makes in this production of Angels involves expansiveness. The first two-thirds of Millennium Approaches takes place across a row of three rotating pods. It feels claustrophobic and constricted. Prior, the play's heart, is diagnosed with HIV and his lover, Louis, abandons him. Roy Cohn, the famously closeted lawyer, is also diagnosed with HIV. Joe, the closeted Mormon, grapples with his sexuality as his wife, Harper, uses valium to escape her stifled existence. Their lives are stymied, like the set is a noose grown taut around them.

Then, during one of Harper's valium-induced head trips to Antarctica, the horizontal line of playing spaces recedes to the rear of the stage and the stage rains with snow. So it goes for the rest of Millennium, a profound expansiveness at work: The angel's glorious entrance at the end of Part One, abetted by a handful of puppeteers, arrives bigger than any production I've seen. The expansiveness unfurls relentlessly toward the end of Part Two, when Prior ascends to heaven. By then the theater's physical boundaries have been stripped away. Columns of lights are revealed. The stage is bigger than it's ever been. And more raw. And bare. Expansiveness in action. An affirmation of the life-granting power of bigness.

Angels in America at the National Theatre sold out its run soon after tickets went on sale. You might be able to score tickets day-of at the box office or through one of the lotteries. Better still, would be to catch the filmed version screening in late July as part of the National Theatre Live series in movie theatres across the United States: Millennium Approaches screens on July 20; Perestroika on July 27.

There's talk of the London revival transferring to Broadway. I say catch in at the movies just in case. I know I'll be there.

Advocate Channel - The Pride StoreOut / Advocate Magazine - Fellow Travelers & Jamie Lee Curtis

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