Seasonings of love: Indy Bard Fest's 'Angels in America' wrestles well with soaring and falling

Desperate Prior Walter casts eyes heavenward.

 Indy Bard Fest
has an ambitious production in "Angels in America," a two-part play by Tony Kushner that has become representative of the fight for sexual identity and respect amid the horrors of the AIDS epidemic.

It is a big, baggy monster, and it's fortunate that Indy Bard Fest is up to the task of representing it with the technical and performing elements thoroughly meshed to excellent effect. At Butler University's Schrott Center for the Arts, the audience gets to be drawn in separately, its endurance tested, with the first part roughly in alternation with the second. "Millennium Approaches" is recommended for a full understanding of "Perestroika," and so performances continue through July 1.

Kushner stuffs so much into this seven-hour theatrical triumph that he blends two types of focus: analysis and advocacy. The mid-1980s firmly anchors the time and setting of "Angels," and the playwright goes full-bore in probing the meaning of that time in America. But he also wants to bring out of that, especially, the struggle for full homosexual humanity in the face of a devastating disease too long unrecognized as a public-health crisis, plus a religious perspective that honors his inherited Jewish faith. 

To put it in secular terms, it's as if Karl Marx had generated a specifically peopled version of "The Communist Manifesto" and blended it with "Capital." The urgent call to arms of one side is suffused into an examination of how theory and practice in the American experiment developed in the late 20th century. 

In the course of Kushner's apparent mission, mind, heart, and genitals must all be given their tangled, extensive say. As Louis says to his lover Joe early in "Perestroika": "I'm lost in an ideological leather bar with you." Pleasure, validation, and understanding are the goals — but with the Declaration-hallowed "pursuit of happiness" also containing recipes for exploitation and misery.

Understandably, there are loads of suffering well distributed among the main characters. This cast, under the direction of Glenn Dobbs, covers an astonishingly full gamut of emotions. Their miked voices go through earsplitting episodes, sometimes subsiding into weariness and despair. Personal agendas often violate reality in order to receive useful, if upsetting, feedback.

With wings spread, Angel (Afton Shepard) is on a tear.
Despite all the emotional and physical pain, "Angels in America" is a comedy. Not just a comedy of funny lines, searing witticisms, and madcap notions, but of the hard-wrenched promise that things might somehow turn out okay. This outlook is not easy to come by. As Oscar Wilde wrote among the sly paradoxes in "The Picture of Dorian Gray": "The basis of optimism is sheer terror."

I have some doubts about the manner in which Kushner reinforces such difficult optimism wrung from terror. In the Bible, Jacob, seeking a blessing, wrestles with an angel and is lamed, gets the blessing and becomes Israel, the nation-founder. In "Perestroika," the corresponding match with the wretched AIDS sufferer Prior Walter ends with the Angel somewhat gimpy. The disease has already made her opponent lame. Call it a draw, I suppose, but the outcome is comedy. And I found funnier than it was supposed to be the descending rape of Prior by the Angel.  As seen Saturday, it was magnificently staged: kudos to the "shadow" actors who were puppeteers in their lifts and wing maneuvers for the Angel, played with agile command and shudders of forceful inevitability by Afton Shepard.

There is also a whiff of camp wafting over Kushner's anatomy of the American soul. There's explicit use of a famous line from "A Streetcar Named Desire," as the stunningly versatile Jay Hemphill (Prior Walter) says in pitch-perfect Blanche DuBois tones: "I have always depended on the kindness of strangers." Slightly earlier comes a celebration of the joys of being home after a dream journey. The style of this bedroom scene owes much to the end of "The Wizard of Oz," where the young Judy Garland, who would grow up to become a gay icon, lauds family values as the little Kansas girl safely back from Oz.

Kushner taps several other cultural sources that I resist trying to identify here. I'm sure some of them went past me. Here's one I caught (maybe); The Angel sheds parting advice at one point that echoes Walt Whitman at the end of "Song of Myself," offering Prior Walter encouragement in his search for her and assurance that she will stop somewhere up ahead waiting for him.

This is a play with an implied need of footnotes. Some  references are entirely germane: The ghost of Ethel Rosenberg appearing to the desperately ill villain lawyer Roy Cohn is a solid inspiration, and also a gem of ironic comedy. When a historical allusion takes such vivid shape and comments on a main character, it cannot easily be dispensed with.

Caricature turns by Nan Macy as a narrow-minded rabbi (at the start of "Millennium Approaches") and the oldest living Bolshevik (opening "Perestroika") were delectable, if somewhat harder to interpret. The bulk of her assignment is discharged in her complex portrayal of Hannah Pitt, a Mormon mother so appalled by her son Joe's confession of his sexual orientation that she moves from Utah to New York. The strictness of purpose with which Hannah was raised turns out to adapt well to a broadening of her understanding. This is also another affirmation of the comic view of human nature that Kushner upholds.

At the other extreme, and brilliantly ferocious, Chris Saunders as Cohn has the bumptious self-confidence that allowed an aggressive New York lawyer to be useful to Senator Joe McCarthy in his anti-Communist crusade and, later, the young Donald Trump's villain apprenticeship (an episode that goes beyond the time of this play). With prophetic accuracy, Kushner puts in Cohn's mouth a skewed patriotism dead-set against liberalism. Deep in a closet of self-hating bigotry, Cohn breaks out eventually with the onset of dementia as he's dying of AIDS in "Perestroika."

Gay set-to: Louis and Belize in pitched argument
Kushner satirizes intellectual knot-tying of the political as well as the personal type. No one could be better at conveying this than Matt Anderson as Louis Ironson. With his hands going like whirligigs and self-justifying words pouring out of his mouth, occasionally bypassing his brain, Louis has a conscience tortured by his abandonment of the sickened Prior. So he forms a tempestuous liaison with Joe Pitt, the Mormon son shedding the mandatory heterosexuality of his religious background at the cost of his marriage and an upwardly mobile career. Joe Wagner captured the extremes of a man trying to give positive outlets to his real self while being battered by his hypocrisy.

The most interesting characters are Belize, a gay male nurse (played by Allen Sledge) whose practiced stability gives way at times to the strain of fighting racial and sexual hatred, and Harper Pitt, Joe's unstable wife (Miranda A. Nehrig), subject to pill-popping fantasies that provide some of the play's most amazing departures from what purports to be the real world. Her husband's gay reveal tips the balance. I never got tired of these characters, though I hasten to add that these two actors' colleagues filled their roles with equal aplomb and detailed skill.

This is by way of declaring my admiration for Hemphill in the juicy role of Prior Walter while confessing that this is one of the most tedious characters I've ever endured in a major play. Prior Walter is on a par with several Eugene O'Neill protagonists who are bothersome to view almost from their first appearance, like  James Tyrone in "A Long Day's Journey Into Night." And to go to the ultimate in this category, there's the vexing King Lear, the more-sinned-against-than-sinning (yeah, we get it) monarch  who's saved with signature ingenuity by the master playwright of them all.

Prior's tiresomeness keeps the epilogue merely mistily moving. Granted, the resolution of "Angels in America" bears some of the positive fantasy expressed by, of all people, Robert Frost in a poem most of us encountered in high school: "Birches." And that's where we might let these strange bedfellows rest.

Frost turns a childhood game of swinging pliable birches from heaven to earth and back again into a life lesson. The up-and-down views with heavenly and earthbound perspectives constantly in play also keep "Angels in America" swinging. Frost points this moral, which is hard to disagree with and can be taken as a gloss on Prior Walter's conclusion:

I'd like to get away from earth awhile
And then come back to it and begin over.
May no fate willfully misunderstand me
And half grant what I wish and snatch me away
Not to return. Earth’s the right place for love:
I don’t know where it's likely to go better.

Whatever happens to us, we are stuck with making love work here. Giving up on love is the biggest mistake, and that's what "Angels in America," at its great length and with excruciating cleverness, has to teach us. Indy Bard Fest has done its best to convey the lesson, and it's important enough that many theater-lovers will find this production irresistible. I don't know where "Angels in America" is likely to go better.

[Photos by Indy Ghost Light]


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