'Angels' depicts AIDS as it was, polarization as it is

Chris Neely
Harper (Liz Sharpe) is a wife suffering under the realization that her husband is a closeted homosexual, and Prior (Jerre Dye) is a gay man facing death in Tony Kushner’s epic “Angels in America” at Playhouse on the Square.

Chris Neely Harper (Liz Sharpe) is a wife suffering under the realization that her husband is a closeted homosexual, and Prior (Jerre Dye) is a gay man facing death in Tony Kushner’s epic “Angels in America” at Playhouse on the Square.

'Angels in America'

‘Angels in America’

“Angels in America: Part I, Millennium Approaches,” continues 2 p.m. Saturday and Sunday and 7 p.m. March 27 and 29.

Part II “Perestroika” at 7 Friday-Sunday and March 28, and 2 p.m. March 30.

Playhouse on the Square, 66 S. Cooper. Tickets: $45 for both shows when purchased together, or $35 each. Call 901-726-4656.

There’s a good chance you won’t soon — or likely ever — see a revival of “As Is,” one of the first mainstream plays in the 1980s to depict a man dying of AIDS and his partner’s struggle to love and care for him.

It’s not a fault of the writing, but of progress. HIV/AIDS in America is no longer certain death wrapped in social stigma.

Mimi’s demise from consumption at the end of “La Bohème” retains its timeless, romantic quality, while Mimi’s near-death of AIDS at the end of the musical “Rent” diminishes in universality a little more each year.

But there is something about Tony Kushner’s two-part play “Angels in America,” now running at Playhouse on the Square in a marvelous and deeply touching production, that speaks very much to the present and even to the future.

In “Millennium Approaches,” the first half of the six-hour drama that opened last Friday, one scene in particular made that immediate connection for me. The vile, politically connected attorney Roy M. Cohn, played with a perpetual sneer by Dave Landis, learns that he has AIDS.

Cohn coils up like a snake ready to strike out at his doctor. It’s not the disease he hates. It’s the “label” that AIDS places on him, a label that would out him as a homosexual and ruin his reputation.

“Like all labels, they tell you one thing, and one thing only,” Cohn snarls. “Where does an individual so identified fit in the food chain, in the pecking order? Not ideology, or sexual taste, but something much simpler: clout.”

Much progress has been made in the two decades since “Angels” premiered in 1991, particularly in the fight for gay equality. But there are still labels. And no battle — whether against bullying or assault rifles — is won without clout.

Veteran stage director Irene Crist brings to the production formidable clout of her own. The minimal set, which uses a series of platforms joined by steps and the suggestion of columns in the background to allude to the Classical forum, is well-suited to the play’s polemical exploration of the ways AIDS (or any polarizing issue, for that matter) affects people.

The central figures in “Angels” are a young man suffering from AIDS and his guilt-ridden Jewish partner who can’t bear to watch the slow, painful death of his lover.

As the ailing Prior Walter, actor Jerre Dye (Ostrander Award-winning star of last season’s “Present Laughter”) delivers another performance of monumental range — a gay man who charms you with his comically flamboyant languish, but breaks your heart with his wide-open terror in the face of death. David Foster, as Louis, embodies the fear and remorse that anyone might have trying to love — or leave — a dying person.

In a parallel narrative, a pill-popping Mormon housewife has spiraled into a life of drug-induced fantasy brought on by the creeping realization that her husband is a closeted homosexual. With a quirky, understated delivery, Liz Sharpe plays that Everywoman personally affected by the social pressures that cause people to lie about who they are. Her husband, Joe, played with growing depth by Colin Morgan, has to face his own guilt and shame.

Sincerely funny in parts, “Angels in America” is hardly a bleak evening of theater, though there are moments that delve into the darkest reaches of the human soul. Part One sets the wheels in motion for a host of divine revelations promised in Part Two, “Perestroika,” which opens this weekend.

Plan on seeing both.

In terms of quality, the cast and crew elevate this play to the level of an event that any serious theatergoer should not miss.

© 2013 Go Memphis. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

Comments » 0

Be the first to post a comment!

Want to participate in the conversation? Become a subscriber today. Subscribers can read and comment on any story, anytime. Non-subscribers will only be able to view comments on select stories.