Angels in America Part 1 – Millenium Approaches
On stage at The Umbrella in Concord, MA through May 4
I did not see the 2008 Elliot Award-winning Boston Theatre Works production of Angels in America directed by Nancy Curran Willis. In fact, I had never seen Tony Kushner’s Pulitzer Prize-winning play at all. So I headed to Concord, MA for the Umbrella Community Arts Center production of Angels in America Part 1 – Millennium Approaches (also directed by Willis) expecting good things but with a relatively blank slate when it came to characters and storyline
I left blown away by the production.
Willis consistently takes community theater to new levels, giving the audience a professional theater experience at a fraction of the price (no surprise given Willis’s extensive background in both professional and community theater), and it is true in spades of Umbrella’s production of Angels in America.
Some of it is casting. Willis knows how to put excellent actors in roles that bring the best out in both the actor and the character he or she plays.
The play focuses on the intersecting lives of eight principal characters in New York City at the height of the AIDS epidemic.
As the play opens, Prior Walter (played by Peyton Pugmire) reveals to his lover, Louis Ironson (Kendall Hodder), that he has AIDS. Louis can’t handle the news and is wracked by guilt for wanting to abandon Prior.
Meanwhile, Mormon lawyer Joe Pitt (Kevin Tobias Brown) works for closeted gay lawyer Roy Cohn (David Berti). Cohn wants Pitt to take a job with the Justice Department in Washington, D.C., but Pitt says he will first have to run it by his wife, Harper (Jennifer Shea). Harper is sexually frustrated by an inattentive Joe and takes refuge in Valium-fueled flights of fancy.
Belize (Damon Singletary), a nurse, is Prior’s former lover and current best friend. Joe’s mother, Hannah (Liz Robbins) moves from Salt Lake City to New York after her son drunkenly comes out to her on the phone. The Voice/Angel (Sharon Mason) delivers messages to Prior in his sick bed.
Among other things, Angels in America is a historical snapshot of mid-1980s America, even mixing in historical figures like Roy Cohn, who was gay and did have AIDS, and did claim publicly to have liver cancer in order to preserve his career. Kushner makes no secret of his own politics, letting his characters give voice to anti-Reagan, anti-corporate, progressive views. Yet at the same time, the conservative character, Joe Pitt, is portrayed in sympathetic terms as he struggles with his own identity and against the corrupting influences of Cohn.
In addition to superb acting across-the-board, major strengths of this production include the skillful use of technical and special effects. The sound design (by Alex Savitzky) and lighting effects (by Rick Shamel) are handled expertly, as are the use of trap doors, fly space and other effects.
Brian Boruta’s minimalist scenic design keeps the focus where it should be – on the actors and the action, and Emily Rosser’s costume design helps to evoke the mid-1980s milieu.
Nancy Curran Willis says that part of her motivation for revisiting Angels in America is the continuing relevance of its political and social themes to today’s audiences, not to mention its historical importance.
“It’s important to show young people who were not even born at the start of the AIDS epidemic the history of the disease,” Willis says. “It is troubling to many in the field that today’s youth are too complacent about a disease that is still a killer.”
“If the play serves as a history lesson, it’s a history still very much in the making,” Willis observes, noting that “the ways in which we look back on and with Angels in America are varied, deeply emotional and often markedly complex.”
If, like me, you have never seen Angels in America – and even if you have – don’t miss the chance to see this high-quality production at bargain prices. Make a day or a night of it. Enjoy a meal in one of the fine restaurants in historic downtown Concord followed by a theatrical experience you won’t soon forget.
ANGELS IN AMERICA PART 1 – MILLENNIUM APPROACHES runs through May 4 at The Umbrella Community Arts Center, 40 Stow St., Concord, MA. Tickets: $15/student; $20/senior; #25/adult. View show times & purchase tickets online or phone 978-371-0820.
Filed under: Columns & Essays, Feature stories, Reviews | 2 Comments
Tags: AIDS, Alex Savitzky, Angels in America, Brian Boruta, Concord MA, Damon Singletary, David Berti, Emily Rosser, Jennifer Shea, Kendall Hodder, Kevin Tobias Brown, Liz Robbins, Mark Sardella, Nancy Curran Willis, Peyton Pugmire, Rick Shamel, Sharon Mason, stage, theater, theatre, Tony Kushner, Umbrella Community Arts Center