Play 'Angels' is commentary on country's ambivalence about AIDS

Christopher Blank/Special to the Commercial Appeal
Jerre Dye (left) and David Foster star in Tony Kushner’s “Angels in America” at Playhouse on the Square. The play’s two parts, “Millennium Approaches” and “Perestroika,” add up to six hours of drama, running back to back for the next three weeks only.

Christopher Blank/Special to the Commercial Appeal Jerre Dye (left) and David Foster star in Tony Kushner’s “Angels in America” at Playhouse on the Square. The play’s two parts, “Millennium Approaches” and “Perestroika,” add up to six hours of drama, running back to back for the next three weeks only.

Angels in America

Performances continue through March 30 at Playhouse on the Square, 66 South Cooper. Part One, “Millennium Approaches,” runs 7 p.m. Friday, Saturday, March 27 and 29, and 2 p.m. Sunday, March 23 and 24. Part Two, “Perestroika,” is 7 p.m. March 21, 22, 23, 24 and 28, and 2 p.m. March 30.

Tickets are $45 for both shows purchased together, or $35 for evening performances and $30 for matinees, and $22 for students. Call 901-726-4656.

On a wintry weekend in January 1996, the culture wars met at a crossroads in Memphis. Conservative icon Jerry Falwell and a number of right-wing politicos were at The Pyramid for a public policy discussion. Opposing gay rights was high on their agenda.

Coincidentally, it was also opening night of Tony Kushner’s provocative play “Angels in America: A Gay Fantasia on National Themes” at Playhouse on the Square. The script remains one of the foremost critiques of the “traditional family values” coalition of the 1980s.

Clocking in at more than six hours (the second part was produced later at the University of Memphis), “Angels in America” shifts between a gay couple torn apart by AIDS, a crumbling Mormon marriage and a Cold War-era attorney confronting his spiritual demons on his death bed.

The popular Broadway epic may have won the Pulitzer Prize three years earlier, but the themes were no less controversial when they premiered here.

Controversial, that is, for those who viewed homosexuality as a deviant lifestyle, and AIDS as a gay disease.

For many others, the play commented on the country’s apparent ambivalence to the blood-borne disease, a pandemic that spread quickly from gay people to intravenous drug users to hemophiliacs to people needing emergency blood transfusions to straight people to babies in the womb.

According to the United Nations, more than 30 million people worldwide have died of AIDS-related causes since the first case was recognized in 1981. Nearly 3,000 of those deaths, as of 2012, have occurred in Shelby County.

Playhouse’s revival of “Angels in America,” beginning this weekend and running through March 30, comes at a time when HIV is survivable and marriage equality is gaining traction nationwide.

Director Irene Crist says the play is not a history lesson, but a commentary for the ages.

“This play is really about whatever is going on at the time,” Crist says. “Tony Kushner is fascinated with how things change, how ideas change. And this is a time of change in America.”

Kushner’s recent acclaimed screenplay to Steven Spielberg’s “Lincoln,” which centers on Abraham Lincoln’s push to abolish slavery, addresses the sea change in perceptions that was needed to pass the 13th Amendment.

For years, perceptions hampered the battle against AIDS.

Vincent Astor, an AIDS activist since the 1980s, recalls that when the disease first appeared in Memphis, it turned people in untouchables.

“We wanted people with AIDS to be treated medically the same as other people, to keep them from being pariahs,” Astor said. “It was equal rights we were fighting for.”

In 1985, Michael Sandin was one of the first people in the city to publicly acknowledge that he had AIDS. Members of his bridge club agreed to play cards with him only if he wore surgical gloves. Just before he died that same year, at age 33, a nurse at Baptist Hospital was fired for refusing to treat him.

The following year, the Memphis theater community mounted its first AIDS-focused play at Circuit Playhouse called “As Is,” about a man dying of the disease. His partner vows to love him “as is.”

Tony Isbell, an actor in that production, said that the then-incurable disease came not only with a “death sentence,” but a stigma as well.

“A couple of years after ‘As Is’, I directed a show and one of the actors had HIV,” Isbell said. “During the course of the rehearsal he had dental work and still had an open sore in his mouth. A couple of people in the cast didn’t want him to come to rehearsal. One person was saying, ‘We don’t know how this thing is transmitted.’ ”

For many in the Memphis theater community, the return of “Angels in America” evokes memories of colleagues lost to AIDS.

Two bronze markers at Theatre Memphis commemorate the lives of young actors Scott Maitland and Jeff Huffman, who died in 1991 within three months of each other.

Memphis native Larry Riley, who went on to play the role of cop-turned-attorney Frank Williams on the soap opera “Knots Landing,” was just 39 when he died of kidney failure. Riley, who was not gay, did not share his AIDS diagnosis even with his family because he felt it would hurt his career.

Michael Jeter, famous for his Emmy Award winning role as high school assistant football coach Herman Stiles on the television sitcom “Evening Shade” and as a homeless cabaret singer in the film “The Fisher King,” lived with HIV until his death in 2003 of an epileptic seizure.

In 1994, local actress and director Ann Marie Hall watched her brother die of AIDS. Two years later, she performed in Playhouse’s first “Angels in America.”

“It was such a spooky time,” Hall said. “Suddenly everybody was sick and dying and you started to freak out. You’d read in the paper that people were dying of ‘pneumonia.’ But how many people die of pneumonia in their 30s?”

Part one of “Angels in America,” called “Millennium Approaches,” opens this weekend. Part two, “Perestroika,” which is a Russian term for “restructuring,” starts next weekend. On Saturday and Sunday, March 23 and 24, audiences can see both parts in the same day, with a dinner break between.

When “Angels” premiered in Memphis, different casts at Playhouse and the University of Memphis performed the shows. This time, the same cast members learned both shows simultaneously.

“There have been times we’d come to rehearsal and look at each other like, ‘Is it just me or can you not fit any more words into your head?’,” said actor Jerre Dye.

Dye plays Prior, a character who learns that he has AIDS and proceeds, over the course of six hours, to experience different manifestations of the disease.

Coming of age in the 1980s, Dye says that AIDS made an impact on the way he viewed love.

“It warped my sense of self,” said Dye, “and my sense of the beauty of the human body and its innate poetry, its perfection.”

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