Tony Kushner’s Angels in America is one of the most important American plays of recent decades. It’s also one of the most difficult to get right. Consisting of two three-hour parts, it’s a feat of endurance for both the cast and the audience. And it deals with a subject – the early years of the AIDS crisis and the inaction, denial, and death that went along with it – that can be almost as wrenching to watch as it was to live through.
I’m happy to report, therefore, that The Players Club of Swarthmore has done a fine job with this demanding play. Director Dave Ebersole has staged Millennium Approaches, the first half of Kushner’s 1993 work, with a minimum of fuss and excess.
Mind you, this play can be challenging to get through. It’s filled with classical allusions and florid language. It’s a big play with a big reach, and sometimes it overreaches in order to make a big impact. But its indulgences – including classical allusions, references to then-recent history, and scenes that mix reality with fantasy – are part of what makes it work so well. And it’s filled with characters whose struggles become truly affecting.
Ebersole’s direction drags at times, especially during the circular and repetitive third act, but he gets fine performances from his cast. Steve Connor, who churns with palpable rage as the ruthless real-life power broker Roy Cohn, is the standout. Heather Ferrel is excellent as the bedraggled, pill-popping housewife Harper, and Taylor Darden matches her as her husband Joe; he’s smooth and confident at first, but he gains power as his life becomes unmoored.
Ed Donlevie is moving as the tormented AIDS patient Prior Walter, and Ryan Goulden has some strong scenes as his partner Louis. Walter Hamilton McCready shows off a confident comic style as the ex-drag queen Belize, and Rhonda Goldstein and Lizzy Dalton-Negron give strong support in a virtual multitude of supporting roles.
Tim Bruno has contributed a stark set with a cold, industrial flavor, and Mick Loro’s piano-inflected music gives the show’s harsher moments an intimate tone.
The Players Club of Swarthmore has not announced plans to stage Perestroika, part two of Kushner’s play. But if they do, it’ll definitely be something to look forward to.
Even in a modest, low-key staging like this one, Angels in America retains its power to shock and stimulate its audience. Does this play go on too long and sometimes become uncomfortable to pay attention to? Yes. But then again, so has the AIDS crisis.
Running Time: Three hours and ten minutes, including two intermissions.
Angels in America Part One: Millennium Approaches plays through April 2, 2016 at The Players Club of Swarthmore – 614 Fairview Avenue, in Swarthmore, PA. For tickets, call (866) 811-4111, or purchase them online.