There’s no question when “Angels in America: Millennium Approaches” takes place. The audience is greeted at the Round House Theatre by a huge projection of President Ronald Reagan before a massive waving flag. But for playwright Tony Kushner, it is not morning in America — one of Reagan’s catchphrases. Life in the Reagan era is far more fraught.
Kushner’s expansive two-play cycle “Angels in America” investigates the vast collective subconscious of the American psyche. Written in the wake of the AIDS crisis of the 1980s, when the harrowing disease was infecting primarily gay men, the work is far more than a so-called AIDS play. It is a rumination on the morals and ethics of our American democracy. Lauded and highly awarded, the work received a Pulitzer Prize, a Tony and Drama Desk Award for best play, and the HBO version received an Emmy. And a quarter-century after its California premiere, the work is a prescient and probing as ever.
The production, which runs through Oct. 30, and is joined by Part II, “Perestroika,” which opens Sept. 25, is a rare collaboration between two of the region’s most reputable theater companies: Round House Theatre in Bethesda, where the productions are staged, and Olney Theatre Center. The artistic directors — Olney’s Jason Loewith and Round House’s Ryan Rilette — each direct one of the works.
For “Millennium Approaches,” Loewith carefully followed Kushner’s stage direction that keeps the playing space bare. The few set pieces — a desk and chairs, a kitchen table, a hospital bed — slide in and away on silent rolling platforms. A steep staircase and an imposing bank of grilled windows complete James Kronzer’s spare set. Clint Allen’s projections on those windows bring the audience into Kushner’s flights of fancy and hyper-realistic dream world.
The play centers around Louis and his partner, Prior Walter, and their disintegrating relationship as AIDS takes over Prior’s body and mind. In orbit around these protagonists is a revolving cast of characters including a young married Mormon couple, Harper and Joe; drag queen and nurse Belize, a confidante of Louis and Prior; attorney and powerbroker Roy Cohn. There is also an ancient rabbi, a Bible’s worth of angels, an Eskimo, a Justice Department hack, convicted spy Ethel Rosenberg and a homeless woman. Kudos, especially, to Sarah Marshall who plays Rabbi Chemelwitz, along with Ethel Rosenberg and an angel, among others. She navigates accents, physical dimensions and genders with aplomb.
While never overly polemical, the work is instructive of Kushner’s vision of America as a democratic collective where individual wants are subverted for the greater societal good. In his wrestling with moral ideals we see his characters struggle — Harper is addicted to anti-anxiety medications; her upright, conservative husband, Joe, has suppressed his homosexuality; Louis battles the guilt of leaving his lover alone to face death. Then there’s megalomaniac Cohn. Kushner uses the Cohn character as a totem for much that is wrong with late-20th-century America: its growing conservatism, its unresolved racism, sexism, homophobia and anti-Semitism, its valuing of the individual above societal needs. And that makes the play feel current, even prescient, in today’s divided political climate.
Louis, played by Jonathan Bock, is a stand-in or alter ego for Kushner, often an observer on the fringes of his own life. The character takes stock of larger societal ills in theory-filled monologues and dialogues on the dialectics of race, class, gender and more. What works best in this production is that director Loewith got out of the way and allowed the script to take the actors on a journey, without embellishments.
Mitchell Hebert’s wildly raging portrayal of unrepentant lawyer Cohn brings a frisson to the work. Mostly a one-note actor, here Hebert’s style encapsulates Cohn’s bombastic, self-indulgent persona.
Interestingly, as unpleasant as Hebert’s Cohn is, he has discovered a bit of desperation in the character’s denial of his homosexuality and his AIDS diagnosis.
Within the fantastical dreamy sequences that include flights of fancy to Antarctica and nurses speaking in Hebrew phrases from the Kabbalah, the real and the imagined intermingle. The play is filled with characters who face hard circumstances and are living through hard times. They are facing change, some with fear and anxiety, others with clear eyed pragmatism.
Set at the end of the 20th century, the play was and remains a prophetic look at America’s ideals. It feels we’re still wrestling with unsolved problems Kushner’s Louis was grappling with. In 2015, the United Nations reported 36.7 million people living with HIV around the world and 35 million have died of AIDS- related causes.
While AIDS is a through line in the play, it’s not the only one. Wrestling with American exceptionalism is also part of Kushner’s agenda. And here, with the character of Cohn and his unrepentant huckster conservatism and cagey government relationships, this play, too, feels relevant to our current political process. “Millennium Approaches” draws from Kushner’s own Jewish upbringing, bringing his moral ideals about community and change to the forefront of a massively powerful and thought-provoking piece.
“Angels in America: Millennium Approaches,” through Oct. 23, Round House Theatre, 4545 East-West Highway, Bethesda. Call 240-644-1100 or visit roundhousetheatre.org.