The first part of Tony Kushner's landmark drama Angels in America: Millennium Approaches climaxes spectacularly with AIDS patient Prior Walter being visited by an imposing Angel crashing through the roof of his apartment.
Part two, Perestroika -- which concludes the Winnipeg Jewish Theatre's 25th anniversary season -- has another rarely seen scene, in which Prior gets into a physical fight with the Angel and gains entry into heaven.
It's an image that fits the striving history of WJT, which was born in 1987 on a wave of cultural and civic pride whipped up by founding artistic director Bev Aronovitch and David Cohen, its first board president. The fledgling company was on the side of angels as far as the city's 15,000-member Jewish community in its dedication to presenting theatre with Jewish themes. Over the last quarter-century there has been a lively wrestling match within that community as to what that means.
"It was formed because a few people in the city did not think that our stories were being told and weren't going to be told by mainstream theatre," says WJT artistic producer Michael Nathanson. "I think the frustration at that time, and even today, is what are those authentically Jewish stories."
During his six years at the WJT helm following Aronovitch, Kayla Gordon and Miriam Bernstein, Nathanson has become a lightning rod for programming works that are considered by some not Jewish enough. One of the troupe's best productions, Arthur Miller's classic Death of a Salesman, sparked a great debate about the essential Jewishness of Willy Loman, he said. Patrons also groused about Betrayal by Harold Pinter and the Hannah Moscovitch double bill Essay and The Russian Play.
"I recognize there wasn't anything thematic about Betrayal that was Jewish," says the 46-year Nathanson. "If RMTC was celebrating his work (with PinterFest), how can a Jewish theatre not do a play by the only Jewish playwright to win a Nobel Prize for literature? As a Jewish playwright, it doesn't make sense to me. I don't see how I could write something that is not in some way informed by my experience as a Jew."
Like any enduring arts organization, WJT has seen ups and downs as well as a near-death experience in 2006. After subscriptions dropped from more than 1,000 in 1997 to less than 300, and a 2005-06 season that attracted less than 50 per cent capacity, a save-the-theatre campaign was launched. More than $50,000 was raised and the crisis averted.
"Even when I came on in 2007 there was still discussion whether the theatre should move forward," he says. "I was on a six-month contract because there was no guarantee there was going to be a next season."
But under Nathanson's tenure, the theatre has programmed better-known plays such as Speed-the-Plow, Death of a Salesman, November and both parts of Angels in America. It was part of his strategy to set a standard of artistic excellence and attract more non-Jewish theatre-goers. In an effort to do the latter, he re-branded the company as simply WJT in 2007, although its formal name has quietly re-emerged.
"I've never been interested in speaking to only one segment of our audience," he says. "I don't think that makes for great art. I've always said that the most important word in our name is theatre. That's what we do. The word Jewish is very important. We can't ever forget our roots."
Nathanson's play Talk was nominated for a 2009 Governor General's Award for drama and has brought attention to his theatre. He has also staged plays by Manitobans, such as Some Things You Keep by Alix Sobler and 2011 GG Award finalist Lenin's Embalmers by ex-Winnipegger Vern Thiessen.
Next season, WJT will present three premieres by local writers. The 2013-14 opener will be Good Intentions by Ginny Collins, followed by a new adaptation by Nathanson of Ivanov, which will be part of ChekhovFest next January, and Shiksa by Cairn Moore.
"We still grapple with what it means to be WJT in 2013," he says. "Our audience has diversified over the last six years. We've got a broader reach but I think it will always be a question."
Perestroika and its eight-member cast represents another huge challenge for WJT, especially since Millennium Approaches under-performed at the box office.
He is still upbeat that Perestroika will draw and never considered replacing it with a surer programming bet. RMTC presented Millennium Approaches in 1996 but part two has never been staged here.
"It's a great show to end our 25th season on," he says. "It has a message of hope and inclusion and of understanding other people."