Anyone who saw Angels in America, Millennium Approaches back in the day remembers it deserving all the lavish praise that was bestowed upon it. There was no doubting the ambition, the bold theatrical imagination of New York playwright Tony Kushner or his gift for language in the three-hour epic.
The question that preceded the Winnipeg Jewish Theatre revival, which opened Wednesday night, was whether the topicality, social concerns and politics of this landmark play of the '90s would still have a grip on viewers over a decade into the third millennium.
The answer, based on the moving WJT production, is that Angels is still an amazing achievement in its penetrating look at America undergoing a massive crisis of conscience in the mid-'80s.
No, it doesn't have the same millennial urgency of the 1996 MTC Warehouse Canadian première, but it maintains its surprising universality, while somehow being funnier than remembered. And Americans, spurred on by unpalatable Republican presidential candidates, are grappling again with questions of rights for homosexuals.
Angels is an alternately grim and comic journey in which the lives, dreams and hallucinations of a quirky group of characters interweave. The central couples are Prior Walter (Ryan Miller), who discovers he has AIDS, and his lover, Louis (Michael Rubenfeld), who can't take the pressure of living with illness; and young Mormon lawyer Joe Pitt (Jeremy Walmsley), who thought he had quashed his homosexual urges by marrying Harper (Tracy Michailidis), a pill-popping space cadet obsessed with the disappearing ozone layer. Joe is also apprenticed to gay homophobe Roy Cohn (Nicholas Rice).
On one level Angels is an AIDS play, focusing on the anger and anxiety of what it means to be gay. On another, it is a political allegory, with Cohn as poster boy for brutal hypocrisy. Three of the characters discover they are not the person they thought they were.
Director Christopher Brauer picks up on that exposure theme and makes it the touchstone of the WJT season-ender. Everything is revealed in his presentation, all the stage magic. The actors are visible at the rear of the stage prior to the curtain and we hear the stage manager calling the cues for the opening scene. By the time Mariam Bernstein walks onstage as a male rabbi with a long beard, the audience has been tipped to an anything-goes evening.
And that's what happens, as the action pinballs between reality and fantasy. Prior, the 34th in his family to carry his name, is visited by his 13th- and 17th-century predecessors. Harper and her imaginary travel agent share a scene in Antarctica and, of course, there is that angel.
The intimate dramatic moments are extremely well done, especially the scene where the gay couple and the Mormon couple play out their breakup scenes simultaneously onstage. Brauer astutely links a couple of scenes when he has Cohn, who is leaving his doctor's office after being told he has AIDS, gazing across the stage at Prior, who is being ravaged by the effects of the syndrome. It's a powerful moment of connection between two men who would normally detest each other.
The mostly local cast does justice to the sterling material, starting with ex-Winnipegger Rice, whose self-loathing Cohn is riveting. The Toronto-based actor displays a man with a fierce intensity who at the same time is funny and malevolent. Prior is also poignant, with his gallows humour about his lesions ("My troubles are lesion") and his painful outrage at being abandoned by Louis. Rubenfeld's strong work as Louis makes us think about the obligations of love.
Walmsley imbues potential Roy-boy Joe with a reckless blandness while Bernstein is ever-versatile, making the most of her walk-on parts. Jamie Robinson as Belize, the sassy African-American queen, brings high wattage to his scenes. Michailidis' Harper raises the worry of environmental apocalypse. As the angel, Marina Stephenson Kerr makes a grand entrance that even an impressed Prior calls "very Steven Spielberg."
WJT's Angels In American succeeds in whetting the appetite for Part 2, the never-before-seen-here Perestroika, next October.
Angels in America, Millennium Approaches
Winnipeg Jewish Theatre
To April 1 at Berney Theatre
Tickets: $35 at 477-7478
Four stars out of five