Better Angels: The Great Work Arrives

THEATER REVIEW by Christian Carvajal for OLY ARTS

What an inspiring, majestic mountain director Lauren Love scaled with her production of Tony Kushner’s Angels in America at South Puget Sound Community College. This monumental script is over a quarter-century old now, and there’s still nothing like it in theater history. Even expansive productions like Peter Brook’s Mahabharata and Trevor Nunn’s Nicholas Nickleby lack its intellectual grandeur, married to bucket-list roles for every actor in its eight-member cast. Thanks to a squad of on- and off-campus experts, the level of acting and technical mastery in this mainstage production rivals anything we’re likely to see in Thurston County.

Angels in America spans two whopping episodes, Millennium Approaches and Perestroika, sprawling over seven-plus hours. For better and slightly worse, this production is in no race to get through all those words. Thus, the experience for the spectator is much more like binge-watching a full season of an adult, Netflix dramedy than catching a farce before cocktails. For an actor, it’s Herculean. It’s been the center of gravity for countless actors’ careers, including mine, just as Hamlet remains a rite of passage for many of the same reasons. The level of commitment required from all parties is staggering. Not only do line counts run into the high hundreds, but at least three characters are expected to fully disrobe, another’s the beneficiary of painful stage effects, multiple accents and languages must be voiced and every actor gets dragged through an emotional wringer.

Angels in America is the only play to win the Tony for “Best Play” twice, once for each segment (1993 and 1994); Millennium won the Pulitzer for drama. It’s set primarily in New York in 1985, with side trips to Utah and “a city much like San Francisco.” That, of course, was the era when HIV raged through the LGBTQ community like the Black Death, necessitating gay Americans’ defiant demands for compassion and unalloyed citizenship. Personifying that movement are AIDS patient Prior Walter (Nicholas Main), his vacillating partner Louis Ironson (Mike Gregory) and a closeted, Republican law clerk, Joe Pitt (Ethan Grabowski). Opposing it stands “the polestar of human evil,” Roy Cohn (Jon Lee), the real-world Rosenberg prosecutor, McCarthy chief counsel and mentor to a certain reality-TV antihero turned Tweeter-in-Chief. Swept along in the current are Joe’s mother Hannah (Sara Rucker Thiessen), his agoraphobic wife Harper (Jesse Morrow) and Prior’s faithful companion, Belize (“a drag name that stuck,” Kushner explains, played by Cameron Dyas). Fluttering above it is a messenger from the great beyond (Kimberlee McDaniel Wolfson), whose personal pronoun, “I I I I,” reflects her official title: “four divine emanations … manifest in One: the Continental Principality of America.”

Louis, as he’s wont to do, declares, “That’s what politics is. The world moving ahead.” If he’s right, then the messenger (Greek: angelo) arrives as a catalyst for social progress in, as one rabbinical-cameo character sighs, “this melting pot where nothing melted.”

Enlivening Love’s mammoth production are professional-grade stagecraft spectacles courtesy of scenic designer Laura Annis, sound designer LM Attea, lighting designer Olivia Burlingame, projections designer Joe Griffith — watch for the flaming aleph — and costume designer Darren Mills, usually of Harlequin Productions. First-time stage manager Haley Paine gets a workout, as does a Las Vegas-based team from Flying by Foy. The cast bows as one, and that’s as it should be. Each is spot-on, meaning I saw career-pinnacle performances by actors I know and unforgettable work from a few I’ve never met.

Before Tuesday’s final-dress rehearsal began, Love acknowledged she felt a call to “rise to the material.” She and everyone involved with Angels in America at SPSCC has done exactly that, so for thoughtful grown-ups to miss seeing this theatrical landmark at its best would be a towering shame.


Angels in America

Part One: Millennium Approaches 7 p.m. Nov. 8, 10 and 16; 1 p.m. Nov. 18;
Part Two: Perestroika 7 p.m. Nov. 9, 15 and 17;
Complete performance with catered dinner Sunday, Nov. 18 (1 p.m. Part One, 5 p.m. dinner, 7 p.m. Part Two)

Kenneth J Minneart Center for the Arts, SPSCC,
2011 Mottman Rd. SW, Olympia



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