By Daedalus Howell
"THERE ARE NO angels in America," suggests a character in playwright Tony Kushner's Pulitzer Prize-and Tony Award-winning gay fantasia Angels in America. Actors' Theatre's intimate staging of the Broadway monolith (expertly directed by Argo Thompson) proves the character wrong. AT's production is strewn with angels--in the form of a talented cast and crew.
A pre-apocalyptic tapestry of subplots concerned with the encroaching AIDS epidemic and political conservatism of the early '80s, Angels is pulled together by the imminent demise of dandified paramour Prior Wallace (Cameron McVeigh), whose infection with AIDS gradually overtakes him throughout the duration of the play. This leads to the implosion of his relationship with his highstrung lover Lois Ironson (Peter Downey), a talkative, white-collar type who is emotionally ill-equipped to endure the tragedy.
Meanwhile, insufferably bombastic and ethically challenged attorney Roy W. Cohn (Joe Winkler) is also diagnosed with AIDS (though his power-broker ego is in denial) while he attempts to convince his lackey Joseph Porter Pitt (Dodds Delzell) to accept a Justice Department position to get him out of a scrape.
Pitt, a Mormon whose central conflict hinges on his moral approach to his work and the fact that he is a repressed homosexual, finds himself in several quandaries, not the least of which is the fact his Valium-addicted wife openly resents him.
Kushner's blissfully meandering text raises innumerable issues germane to both '80s and '90s America and then offers cogent answers.
Director Thompson exceeds himself in bringing this three-act behemoth to the diminutive AT stage without forgoing any of the spectacle that is, in part, this show's trademark. He has assembled and activated a top-drawer cast that brings out the poignancy and humor of the work.
McVeigh is a revelation as the unabashedly fey Prior: witty, pretty, and gay, McVeigh's character never disintegrates into nellified clichés. Complementing McVeigh is the equally dexterous Downey as his nebbishy lover Louis. Brought in as a pinch hitter to replace another actor two weeks before opening night, Downey turns in an excellent performance that hits all the right notes.
Winkler's Cohn, a garrulous poison-pen love letter to the real-life lawyer historically associated with the wrongful execution of Ethel Rosenberg, is a powerhouse performance rife with gruff intensity. Winkler draws Cohn as both hilariously comic and unexpectedly sympathetic. Winkler's scenes with Delzell's knock-kneed gofer Joe shine particularly as the two characters' moral sensibilities repeatedly clash, producing myriad dramatic sparks.
Likewise, Danielle Cain's Harper, the pill-popping wife, emerges as a truly tragic figure when sharing the stage with Delzell. Armond Dorsey does a delightfully frenetic turn with ex-drag queen Belize, often wresting scenes from his stage mates with a deft gesture or well-deployed line.
Throughout, the sonorous voice of an angel, spoken with heavenly effect by Bronwen Shears, hovers in the wings. Shears also steals the show as an elderly real estate agent who preserves half-smoked cigarette butts in a baggy in a brief scene with Phoebe Moyer.
AT's production marks a triumph for local stages, proving once and for all that size doesn't matter when talent is at play.
'Angels in America' continues through Dec. 18 on Thursdays through Saturdays at 8 p.m. and Sundays at 2 p.m. at the Luther Burbank Center, 50 Mark West Springs, Santa Rosa. Tickets are $8-$15. 523-4185.
From the November 18-24, 1999 issue of the Sonoma County Independent.
© Metro Publishing Inc.