This Thursday, Williamstheatre will kick off its presentation of Tony Kushner’s Pulitzer Prize winning play “Angels in America, Part One: Millenium Approaches.” This marks the last production before director David Eppel, professor of theatre, takes an extended sabbatical. In addition, the play will mark the completion of theater majors Mike Fluellen ’03, Emily Glenn ’03 and Foster Cronin’s ’03 senior seminar project. Unlike most Williams productions, which rehearse for four to five weeks before performing, the eight-person cast has worked with Eppel for approximately the last nine weeks of the semester. “We’ve grown so much, learned so much as actors and developed these characters,” Eppel said.
The atypical nature of this production extends beyond its longer time frame. As opposed to spending the early weeks working on blocking and line memorization, “we spent the first few weeks researching and tearing the script apart,” Glenn said. This could be attributed to the nature of Kushner’s work â€“ his is an exceedingly complex interweaving of themes and genres, a potent mixture of the poignant and irreverent. Liz Suda ’05 said “I was expecting everyone to come in knowing what to do.” Instead, she found that “if you go in thinking you know, you’ll ruin the play.” The process of understanding the play has continued throughout production. Less than a week before opening night, Fluellen noted, “we’re still discovering new things.”
“Angels” follows the story of two couples: one heterosexual, one homosexual. The saga begins when Joe Pitt (played by Andrew Giarolo ’04), a Mormon lawyer, is offered a job in the Justice Department by Roy Cohn (Cronin), his right-wing mentor. The decision is complicated when his wife Harper (Glenn), who suffers from anxiety and Valium addiction, opposes the necessary move to Washington, D.C. At the same time, Prior Walter (Peter Van Steemburg ’03) reveals to his partner Louis Ironson (Mauricio Najarro ’04) that he has been diagnosed with AIDS.
The two stories soon intermingle. Joe encounters Louis crying in the bathroom of a courthouse and the two become friends. Harper and Prior also meet, though their first encounter is in a shared dream. This sort of fantastic encounter is present throughout “Angels.” Kushner often mixes the human and supernatural as the characters face the reality and imminence of death represented in HIV. During the dream, Prior tells Harper that her husband is in fact a homosexual. Harper soon confronts Joe, who insists upon his heterosexuality, but admits to struggling with the issue.
As the conditions of both Harper and Prior worsen, Louis begins to forsake caring for Prior to seek anonymous sex in Central Park. Najarro describes the character as “terribly human, very fallible. He’s just a normal person put in an extraordinary situation and has to make tough decisions about what he owes to himself and to love.” Prior’s care becomes increasingly handled by his nurse Belize (Fluellen), a former drag queen, to whom Prior reveals that he has been hearing a mysterious voice. Belize doubts the truth of Prior’s claim, but once he leaves, the audience too hears the voice telling Prior that she is a messenger.
Joe and Louis grow increasingly close as their relationship begins to take on sexual overtones. The tension drives Joe to make a drunken phone call to his mother Hannah (Abigail Nessen ’05), during which he tells her that he is gay â€“ a claim she refuses to accept. Even so, she makes ready to sell her house and move to New York in an attempt to set things right. The tension heightens as both Joe and Louis confront their troubled relationships.
The themes of the play are far-reaching, in terms of both nature and implication. Eppel describes it as “a play about America, a play looking at American institutions and re-evaluating them.” Regarding the ambitious nature of the project, Eppel commented, “I’ve always loved it, it’s a brilliant play and I knew that I had the actors that could do it.” This same ardor for Kushner’s work was echoed by the entire cast, as almost inevitably, when asked why they auditioned, their first words were “I read the play.”
Van Steemburg, who describes playing Prior as “the biggest stretch I’ve ever had for a role,” recalled, “I’d read it in a Mark Reinhardt [professor of political science] class. As soon as I knew they were doing it, I had to audition.”
The excitement amongst the cast is almost palpable. According to Glenn, “you get so attached to these characters, the first time we had an audience, I thought ‘how can they laugh at these people?’” The humor and wit is nonetheless important, as Nessen explained, “that’s what I find is so inspiring about this play, you have the opportunity to be educational without being didactic.”
The intricacy of the play’s events and characters is furthered by Kushner’s use of multiple casting. Every actor plays a variety of roles, each one intimately tied to another. Suda, who plays both the part of Angel and nurse, said of her part, “there’s definitely a connection â€“ they are both healers in their own sense.” Fluellen is even more explicit in his explanation: “it’s a very incestual show.”
The play’s staging has presented other difficulties for both cast and crew. As Eppel put it, “the technical aspects, it’s very complicated, but the people have risen to the challenge.” The resources devoted to the show by the theater department have been significant, and the investment clearly shows in the number and quality of the production’s effects. Stage manager Becky Phillips ’06 describes it as “the most involved thing I’ve ever done in terms of tech, sound and light.” The play’s length, over three hours, is itself a challenge. “Pacing is very very important,” Phillips said, “you don’t want it to drag, but there are so many beautiful little moments which need time.”
“Angels in America” will be showing on the Adams Memorial Theatre MainStage, from Nov. 21-23 at 8:00 p.m., with an additional 2:00 p.m. matinee showing on Nov. 23.