Angels in America at Playhouse on Park

By Diana Insolio

Lucky for us, Playhouse on the Park in West Hartford has chosen to produce Angels In America: Part One: Millennium Approaches, the Tony Kushner play about AIDS and America that first dazzled New York audiences in 1993. The production is masterful and magical, and shouldn’t be missed.

Directed by Sean Harris, Kushner’s depiction of America in the early 1980’s begins with a eulogy delivered by Rabbi Isidor Chemelwitz (played by Rae C. Wright, who conveys the rabbi’s poetic message with great clarity). The rabbi tells us that the subject of his eulogy, Sarah Ironson, an ordinary grandmother who immigrated as a young girl to the U.S., is the story of America itself because her descendants, like most Americans, carry in their bones the experiences of their immigrant predecessors. We cannot repeat their voyages from the old world, the rabbi says in his Yiddish accent, “but every day of your lives the miles that voyage between that place and this one you cross. Every day. You understand me? In you that journey is.”

The play comprises the journeys of several poignantly drawn characters yearning for connection, struggling with identity, and facing other conundrums of life against the backdrop of America approaching the millennium. Louis Ironson, grandson of the deceased woman of the rabbi’s prologue, (played by Marty Scanlon with a loveable sincerity that is downright charismatic) and his partner Prior Walter (played flawlessly by James Parenti) have learned that Prior has contracted AIDS. As Prior’s illness progresses, Louis struggles with the urge to leave him, even though he loves him. Louis befriends Joe Pitt (played beautifully by Tim Hackney), a young Morman attorney who is tortured by his closeted sexuality, a grievous sin according to his religion. Joe is married to Harper, a tortured soul whose hallucinations comprise some of the dream-like sequences that weave the conscious with the unconscious in this play. (Harper is played by Kristen Harlow whose performance reaches beyond gendered cliches to convey a deep sense of what it is to be human). Joe must face, with Harper, the reality of his homosexuality even as he confronts his closeted professional mentor Roy Cohn, the red-baiting real-life New York attorney whose underhanded dealings made him a kind satanic celebrity even after his death from AIDS in 1986.

Several of the actors take multiple roles. Ms. Wright, who plays the rabbi, also plays Louis’ mother Hannah Pitt, and Ethel Rosenberg, but without the depth with which she embodies the rabbi in Scene 1. The roles of Belize, Prior’s best friend, and Mr. Lies, the travel agent who lives in Harper’s imagination, are played by Clark Beasley, Jr. Ironically, he seemed more present, more grounded in his character, as Mr. Lies than as Belize, who is very real. The entrance of the Angel, (played by Olivia Hoffman), who appears at the end of the play to take away the dying Prior, is beautifully costumed, but enters with a crash whose efficacy I am still puzzling over; is it the crash of heaven, or the clunk of falling scenery? If the latter, it is a mere blip within a beautifully staged play.

The scenery (Christopher Hoyt), lighting (Aaron Hochheiser), costumes (Demara Cabrera) and sound design (Joel Abbott) are simple and effective at moving the action forward. The actors and scenery enter and exit primarily from three doors at the back of the stage curtained with a gauzy white material that also patterns the walls at the back of the stage. The material is simultaneously reminiscent of the gossamer wings of an angel and bandages of the infirm. Like the play, it evokes the mysteries of beauty and illness, love and loneliness, life and death.

Angels in America: Part One: Millennium Approaches, Playhouse on the Park, 244 Park Road, West Hartford, CT  06119,, 860-523-5900, Through October 19th.

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