If Millennium Approaches is the anticipation of a thing, then Perestroika is the aftermath. Never mind that it literally means “restoration.” This half of the pair is harder to pull off, as it lacks some of the urgency found in the waiting. Perestroika is what happens after you unfurl the Mission Accomplished banner and realize Iraq isn’t going to become a democracy overnight (thank you, George Bush, for providing the perfect metaphor). And it is, inherently and by necessity, less exciting than an angel destroying one’s ceiling.
As if to push that point home right at the start, the play opens with the oldest living Bolshevik begging the youth of 1990 (or today, if you take the timeless angle) for a grand rebuild of what was. It isn’t enough to want something; one must inspire with vision and action.
Director Albert Schultz made a number of great calls in this second half to Angels, highlighting the stark contrast between the fantasies of yesterday and the cold realities of today. Harper (Michelle Monteith) starts to come down from her drug-induced flights of fancy, her resplendent white winter coat from Millennium now a drab brown jacket. Joe (Mike Ross) is adorably exuberant in exploring his sexuality, and yet the show continues to hold him up as a paragon of lies; he literally stands in as a Mormon mannequin, mechanically (and hilariously) mouthing along to a canned spiel about the importance of tradition.
What Soulpepper gets right is finding the drama in rebuilding, the humanity in what is incredibly academic and intellectual dialogue. Roy Cohn (Diego Matamoros) may die a miserable, selfish old man, but that doesn’t prevent him from earning laughs by faking out a ghost and earning some redemption from his nurse anyway. Joe’s mother and sometimes revenent of Ethel Rosenberg (Nancy Palk) hits her notes perfectly, full of satisfied smiles and an affecting delivery of her understated common sense and utter lack of pity for others. Prior Walter (Damien Atkins) absolutely sells the divine fear of being a prophet, but isn’t above using his newfound status to bull his way through key conversations with his former lover Louis (Gregory Prest). (To wit: “Fuck you, I’m a prophet!”) Raquel Duffy as the Angel is a treat, infusing her ethereal performance with a desperate, yearning energy.
Some parts dragged, regrettably; that’s bound to happen when the subject of the day is rebuilding rather than changing. (Again, the problem with those Mission Accomplished banners.) Belize is a tough character to play, being the only one who remains stable throughout both halves of the script; he’s more symbolic than human, less fallible than the Angels, and his air of distance and disdain from the trivialities around him is fun to watch but less affecting. Louis’ bluster is simply, at times, an annoyance to be endured, and the moments when Belize steps in to sardonically interrupt him aren’t quite worth the wait.
What felt almost jarring, however, was the final scene where Prior breaks the fourth wall. Schultz wisely included a slow build to that moment, with various cast members demonstrating some awareness of the audience leading up to the final scene, but still. What made it stand out is that the rest of the show, including Millennium Approaches, felt so timeless. The speech delivered to the audience at the end firmly and specifically grounds Angels as a product of the 1980s and the AIDS crisis. At its worst, that juxtaposition makes the performances feel less relevant and dated; at its best, that juxtaposition forces the audience to wonder what relevance the message continues to have today.
If the AIDS crisis was instrumental in uncomfortably forcing the gay community into the spotlight for good, then Angels in America is about confronting that new reality and constructing new lives within it. That is a universal theme no matter how grounded in specific events it is; the death of DOMA, after all, is hardly the end of the fight. As Prior would say: after significant change we take a moment to wash up and collect ourselves, and then the Great Work will continue.
4.5 out of 5 Continental Prinicipalities