Angels in America is a big, ambitious duo of plays, each clocking in a three hours and managing to be simultaneously human, epic, literal, metaphorical, intimate and distant. To take them on at all speaks to a certain amount of like ambition, to say nothing of confidence, and suffice to say that Soulpepper has done a wonderful job.
Written by Tony Kushner partially in response to the AIDS crisis of 1980, Angels nonetheless manages to have a timeless feel about it, and director Albert Schultz taps into that broadness right from the start. Prior Walter (Damien Atkins) may reveal his era-centric diagnosis to his lover Louis Ironson (Gregory Prest) in their first scene together, but little is made, in the moment, of the fact that the scene consists of two men. In fact, for most of the production, AIDS may as well be interchangeable with any other devastating disease one could contract.
As the name suggests, Millennium Approaches anticipates change rather than delivers on it, and as such is the more portentous of the two halves. Every character is on the cusp of a major transition, and what’s fascinating is the different ways they react to this impending doom. Joseph Pitt (Mike Ross) is the poster boy for stereotypical Mormon mental compartmentalization, so utterly able to convince himself of his own heterosexuality that he doesn’t even know he’s lying when interrogated by his wispy wife Harper (Michelle Montheith). It probably helps his cause that she’s in a near constant Valium trance, but her pointed questions constantly penetrate his anger, prevarication and last-ditch faith-based workaround: what does his sexual preference matter? He loves her and prays and wants to make it work. So there.
If Joe is the epitome of self-denial, Roy Cohn (Diego Matamoros in a role so well suited to his unique style of enunciation it ought to be recorded for posterity) is so self-assured of his own grandeur he can admit his sexual proclivities while denying homosexuality on the basis of having made a pretzel out of dictionary definitions. A homo is someone without clout, an ineffectual nobody who deserves to be stomped on; Cohn, on the other hand, has political capital to burn and the attitude to do just that. Matamoros lends a hypnotic gravitas to the role; watching him, you truly believe this man can turn AIDS into cancer just by having declared it so.
What impresses most about this production of Millennium Approaches is how human it is, despite the grandeur, visions and literal angel crashing through the roof to end things off. We’ve all known a philosophizing blowhard like Louis, and yet it’s heartbreaking how his inability to cope with losing Prior cuts through his bluster. Prior’s anger at Louis’ betrayal is palpable, as is his fear and wonder at the voice he hears in his dreams (to say nothing of the accompanying physical reaction he wakes to). Harper may spend half her time with an imaginary, Valium-induced friend (Belize/Mr. Lies, played by Troy Adams), but the pain that drives her to it is written all over Monteith’s face in every scene. The play may be solidly rooted in the AIDS crisis and 1980s politics, but the human element makes it timeless and terrifically easy to access.
The set is incredibly versatile, surrounded on all sides by rotating panels with two to three doors each, making for at least 15 different ways for actors to enter and exit the stage. And despite the chaos so much coming and going could suggest, the production keeps the necessary connections visible and present at all times. Characters not part of a scene are often on stage anyway, in the dark. Prior’s bed is Louis’ bed is Joe and Harper’s bed, and it remains on stage no matter what else changes. Prior himself stays in bed through each intermission, blurring the lines between when the show actually stopped. (It never did, of course; as in life, you’re in bed sleeping whether people witness it or not. Trees falling in the forest and all that.)
By the end Millennium has indeed arrived, with tremors and thunder and fallen chunks of ceiling, and it is wonderfully, simply, powerful. The play began with a eulogy, recalling our connection to the past; who’s to say if it that connection will survive ’til morning?
5 out of 5 angels dancing on the head of a pin.