Prophetic Messages continue in the stunning second part of Tony Kushner’s masterwork, Angels in America: Perestroika –now appearing at the Round House Theatre as a joint production of the Round House Theatre and the Olney Theatre Center. This production is directed by Ryan Rilette with dramatic, trenchant, and witty aplomb with a great respect for the text and the emotional, universal appeal of this very subversive yet humanistic play.
As the play opens with the world’s oldest living Bolshevik (the sublime Sarah Marshall in one of many roles) exhorting the ideological fervor of an individual who is afraid of living in a world without theory (namely, the unknown and challenging openness of the changing world that has lead to Perestroika ——)–I realized that playwright Kushner was going to provoke us with this idea throughout the play. Does the word and, especially, America need to even have a theory with the vagaries of the fragile human heart subverting any logical philosophy whatsoever?
As the Angel (so beautifully played by Dawn Ursula with an audacious touch of ethereal defiance) exhorts the human race (as represented by the subtle and heart wrenching acting of Tom Story as Prior Walter) to “Stop Moving!” it is obvious that even if death and despair must be embraced, that is preferable even if God abandons the earth’s inhabitants. This play often reminded me of Alfred Hitchcock’s film Vertigo in its preoccupation with the erotic appeal of death).
This somewhat unique perspective works because this deeply philosophical and highly verbal epic exhorts playwright Kushner’s highly humanistic and progressive idea that personal, social, and political change must be achieved through human beings striving to make concrete progress. Amidst all the forces of historical, political and personal chaos, only human beings connecting with their wounded hearts and moving on will enhance progress (shades of the influence of Tennessee Williams).
Kushner seems to be influenced by Susan Sontag’s concept of “Aids as Metaphor” as this devastating plague’s symbolism and utter reality (so ignored at the time of Reagan’s presidency) runs probingly throughout the play. Kushner enjoins the listener/audience for sympathy to this plight as Mr. Story’s character suffers so terribly and even the venal historical personage of Roy Cohn (so deftly etched with acid and venom by Mitchell Mitchell Hébert) touched me in a surprising way as the Ghost of Ethel Rosenberg (Sarah Marshall) sings Kaddish to the dying demagogue.
Yet Kushner’s writing skill and sympathy for the broken human condition cuts a universal arc that also includes sympathy for those who are misunderstood, those who are marginalized, and those who have been devastated by broken relationships. The tenuous and strife-ridden relationship between Harper (the marvelous Kimberly Gilbert) and her roving husband Joe (the intriguing Thomas Keegan) seems totally irredeemable until they face the painful truths of their strained connection.
The scene where Harper strips and forces Joe to tell her what he sees is played to perfection by Ms. Gilbert and Mr. Keegan without any sensationalism or prurience whatsoever. The scene where they attempt to make their marriage work is heartbreaking in its honesty. Credit must be given to these superb actors and Director Rilette.
The searing honesty of the scene between Mr. Story and Mr. Jonathan Bock (who plays Louis) when Louis expresses his guilt over having left his lover in his time of need is portrayed with aching honesty.
The confrontation between Louis and Joe when Louis provides evidence of Joe’s complicity in not defending helpless victims is performed with wrenching skill and strong, brutal physicality by actors Bock and Keegan.
Though Kushner acknowledges the despair and wounded heats of all his characters, much like Tennessee Williams, he also offers glimmers of hope and reconciliation as we witness polar opposites coming together with attempts at understanding and reconciliation.
The interaction between Hannah Pitt (Sarah Marshall) and Prior (Tom Story) when they first meet each other is played with appropriate bemusement, astonishment and concern. A decided highlight of this production!
The various scenes between Mitchell Mitchell Hébert’s Roy Cohn and Jon Hudson Odom’s Belize are nuanced studies in characters that initially detest each other but are forced to come together in a mutual begrudging understanding.
As mentioned earlier, Mitchell Hébert’s acting is excellent, but Mr. Odom’s portrayal of Belize matches him every step of the way with a rich, veritably amazing mixture of moods from deadpan sarcasm, witty retorts and a sense of timing akin to the slow masterful pauses and glares of Jackie Gleason and Bea Arthur.
Sensuality is given free rein with nudity and frank sexual themes handled with sensitivity and natural spontaneity. Dawn Ursula’s Angel engages in orgasmic copulation with Pryor and Hannah as befits the candor and veracity of this very unique play.
Scenic Designer James Kronzer continues to create marvelous scenic effects as dry ice envelops the stage, the Angel flies out of the well-crafted celestial spheres of an uppermost window, and a conference of Angels convenes in the heavens.
The acting is of such a high caliber that I am merely highlighting “highpoints amidst highpoints” but I would be remiss if I did not mention the stellar monologue delivered by Kimberly Gilbert (Harper) as she takes a night flight to San Francisco (throughout the play, Heaven is always compared to the gay Mecca that is the “City by the Bay”).
As Harper mused about life and its implications, the earth and cutting though the ozone layer she says:
“Nothing is lost forever. In this world, there is a kind of painful progress. Longing for what we’ve left behind and dreaming ahead.”
Ms. Gilbert delivers this monologue with an unerring fusing of the both the internal and external aspects of this writing, thus, breaking the fourth wall completely.
Using a critic’s license, I have often thought the play could end here on the exactly right note but obviously Mr. Kushner has given us an even longer textual explication of hope and possibility as we gather at the Bethesda Fountain in Central Park (yet another ingenious visual by Projection Designer Clint Allen).
Mr. Story acts the hell out of his final lines as his friends gather around the Fountain and we are give a final benediction that offers a tentative comfort and hope after all the dramatic torments that have proceeded this moment. Sobbing could be heard throughout the audience in this cathartic moment as Mr. Story so beautifully expressed the affirmative closing lines.
Round House Theatre and the Olney Theatre Center should be commended for this milestone of a co-production. The Washington, DC metro region has been enriched by this historic and massive undertaking. Kudos to each and everyone involved in this thrilling production!
Running Time: Three hours and 40 minutes, with two-ten-minute intermissions.
Round House Theatre and Olney Theatre Center’s Angels in America: Part II: Perestroka plays through October 30, 2016 at Round House Theatre -4545 East-West Highway, in Bethesda, MD. For tickets, call the box office at (240) 644-1100, or purchase them online.
Angels in America: Part 1: Millennium Approaches is presented in alternating repertory with Angels in America: Part Two: Perestroika.
Review: ‘Angels in America: Millennium Approaches’ at Round House Theatre and Olney Theatre Center by David Friscic.
Spine: Anguish, Angels, and the Reagan Revolution: ‘Angels in America’ at Round House Theatre by Robert Michael Oliver.
Post-Play Palaver: John Stoltenberg and Michael Poandl on ‘Angels in America: Millenium Approaches’ at Round House Theatre and Olney Theatre Center.