Despite Distance from AIDS Crisis, 'Angels in America' Delivers Dynamite Production

It’s a weird feeling when a play that once rocked you to the soles of your shoes becomes something that is taken for granted by most people. When Tony Kushner’s Angels in America first hit the stage, it lighted audiences’ hair on fire. Here was a play that, in 1993, was speaking about the AIDS crisis in such personal, poetical and politically savvy terms that you could barely believe what you were seeing.

Back in 1985 when the play is set, it seemed like AIDS was an unstoppable beast, devouring everyone in its ravenous path. Now, 30 years later, that fear and urgency has faded, with AIDS mostly under control (even with new eruptions being reported). As a result, the play loses a good bit of its topical intensity. But what it gains is some distance, allowing the audience to absorb and think about these characters in a slightly less fevered context.

And in this production of Angels in America, Part I: Millennium Approaches, the Baldwin Wallace University students under the direction of Scott Plate deliver remarkably well. With captivating performances virtually across the board, the young actors find many of the nuances in Kushner’s script, and there are several moments that are emotionally shattering.

The story is built around two couples that have big issues on the table in 1985 in New York City. Prior Walter is an out gay WASP man with AIDS and his Jewish boyfriend Louis is not sure he can handle it. Louis works as a paper pusher in a law firm where Joe Pitt, a Republican, Mormon and closeted gay man is a law clerk.

Just to roil the water even more, Joe is married to Harper, an agoraphobic woman addicted to pills and who is subject to wide-ranging hallucinations. At the same time, Joe is the protégé of Roy Cohn, a character from real life, who was a cutthroat east coast lawyer and a major player in the predations of Sen. Joe McCarthy and his commie-hunting Congressional committee.

Kushner elegantly draws each of these storylines together while creating characters that are at once astonishingly fresh and remarkably familiar. As Prior, Joseph Carmelo begins as a smart-ass gay fellow but his quips quickly turn dark as his illness is exposed. Carmelo maintains a firm grip on his character, even through his participation in one of Harper’s hallucinations and on to his agonizing experience with his deadly disease. Joshua Smalley offers solid counterpoint as Louis, showing how he struggles with his desire to support Prior and his urge to escape the horror.

Equally good are Nate Klingenberg as Joe and Kelsey Bachrens as Harper—exploring Joe and Harper’s Mormon-fed beliefs about religion and sex. At this final dress rehearsal performance, some of the cast rushed a few beats and lingered a bit too long in others, but they all have admirably high batting averages when it comes to landing their roles. Most are double cast and Bachrens is also interesting when she jumps genders and plays Martin Heller, a Republican political operative. As is Molly Huey when she plays Joe’s mom from the Midwest, an hallucinated Ethel Rosenberg, and a rabbi.

Brooke Turner does a nice, mildly psycho turn as a homeless woman and then occupies the ultimate moment in the show as the Angel. In the double role of Belize and Mr. Lies, Malik Victorian is smooth and gets off a couple good lines, but is often too mellow to fully register.

Notably, one cast member consistently hits it out of the park. As Roy Cohn, Alex Smith is superb. Whether he’s cooing, bellowing, preening with confidence or writhing in pain from his own case of AIDS, Smith nails moments with an immediacy and callous believability that is mesmerizing.

The play is staged in the round and director Plate, along with scenic designer Jeff Herrmann, leave the large stage almost bare for the whole show, bringing on set pieces and props as needed and then removing them. This leaves the characters floating in the blackness of their own particular agonies. It is a stark setting, suitable for such a brutally honest play.

Justifiably, Baldwin Wallace has gained a reputation as the leading university in the country for training performers for Broadway musicals. But this production of Angels shows that it ain’t just the singers who are the stars in Berea.

Angels in America
Through October 17 at Baldwin Wallace University, Kleist Center for Art & Drama, 95 E. Bagley Rd., Berea, 440-826-2239. 

About The Author

Christine Howey

Christine Howey has been reviewing theater since 1997, first at Cleveland Free Times and then for other publications including City Pages in Minneapolis, MN and The Plain Dealer. Her blog, Rave and Pan, also features her play reviews. Christine is a former stage actor and director, primarily at Dobama Theatre...
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