It’s been three decades since playwright Tony Kushner shook up the world by tackling the AIDS crisis with his epic seven-hour play “Angels in America,” staging Part 1 in San Francisco in 1991, Part 2 in Los Angeles in 1992 and finally hitting Broadway in 1993 to win both the Pulitzer Prize for Drama and the Tony Award for Best Play.
Now, to mark the play’s 30th anniversary, Arena Stage in D.C. presents “Angels in America, Part 1: Millennium Approaches,” running now through April 23 —so you only have a week and a half left to witness its glory.
“It’s one of the great works of American theater, maybe some consider it the greatest work of American theater in the 20th century certainly,” Actor Ed Gero told WTOP.” We’re really looking at two couples, one heterosexual couple, one homosexual couple, and how they’re dealing with repressed homosexuality and being victims of AIDS in a government that’s really paying no attention. … It’s really a love poem about relationships and America.”
Set in New York City in late 1985 and early 1986, the play opens with Louis Ironson learning that his lover, Prior Walter, has contracted AIDS. Unable to cope with his partner’s progressing illness, Louis sadly abandons Prior to be consoled by a hospital nurse and ex-drag queen named Belize, who also helps Louis process his feelings of guilt.
Meanwhile, Louis’ colleague Joe Pitt, a Mormon clerk in a New York judge’s office, is offered a job by McCarthyist mentor Roy Cohn, who is himself a closeted gay man pulling the levers of power. Joe debates whether to accept the new position because his Valium-addicted wife Harper refuses to relocate to D.C. due to her agoraphobia.
“What an incredible character,” Gero said. “He represented the Reagan-era denial and power. … He was denying that he was gay. He was denying that he had AIDS. How current is Roy Cohn today? You could argue that he created Trumpism and the political landscape that we’re in today. Donald Trump did say, ‘Where’s my Roy Cohn?’ and I say on my Facebook page, ‘Look no further, he’s at Arena Stage until the 23rd!'”
This year also marks the 20th anniversary of Kushner’s 2003 HBO miniseries “Angels in America,” directed by Mike Nichols and starring Al Pacino and Meryl Streep. Kushner has since become Steven Spielberg’s go-to screenwriter for “Munich” (2005), “Lincoln” (2012), “West Side Story” (2021) and “The Fabelmans” (2022).
“It’s an extraordinary bit of writing,” Gero said. “It has Shakespearean dimension to it in terms of language, in terms of character. … Folks have said, ‘Has Tony Kushner sent you new material Because it sounds so immediate.’ No, this is the actual 1990s text. What a great writer, beautifully written, great speeches, funny, moving, it’s just incredible to work inside. We’re still working and still discovering, it’s really deep.”
This time, it’s visualized by Hungarian director János Szász, who brings a filmmaker’s sensibility to the stage after his Cannes Film Festival selection “The Witman Boys” (1997) and Oscar submission “The Notebook” (2013).
“We’re in this fever-dream dreamscape where visions are appearing,” Gero said. “János has removed the play from a realistic setting in New York and put it on this incredible environment of an arena in an arena. There’s six inches of sand, the entire arena is wrapped in plastic so you get a fully immersive experience. As you walk into the theater, you’re hearing the tolling of names of people who have passed away from AIDS.”
No word yet on whether Arena Stage will deliver “Part 2, Perestroika,” but don’t wait around. Part 1 beckons.
“Many folks are saying, ‘When is Part 2 going to happen?’ Hard to say. We would love to do it, of course,” Gero said. “If you get the chance in the next two weeks, come see this play. You’ve not seen anything like this before, great acting, great story, it’s a landmark production that will be talked about for a long time, I think.”
Listen to our full conversation here.
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