Emerson Presents Powerful, Touching ‘Angels in America: Perestroika’ (4 Stars)

ANGELS IN AMERICA – Perestroika – Written by Tony Kushner; Directed by Nancy Curran Willis; Presented by the Emerson Umbrella Center for the Arts at 40 Stow Street, Concord, MA through October 12.

It’s been over ten years since HBO broadcast the mini series ANGELS IN AMERICA written by Tony Kushner, so it’s about time to see this show as it was intended – live. Brian Boruta at The Umbrella in Concord is currently producing Part 2 of this drama, following last spring’s production of Part 1. Yes, it feels a little like walking in on a show “already in progress,” but that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t see it. I hadn’t seen the first part, yet I could still appreciate the humor, relationships, and themes of abandonment, keeping secrets, and forgiveness. Religion features prominently with accompanying angelic visitations, magical experiences, and personal visions.

To be sure, ANGELS a little confusing in the first 15 minutes, if you don’t know anything at all about the show, but the characters are memorable and their names are repeated often enough that it’s not so hard to keep track of who is whom and pick up the storyline. To help understand the scenes, you need to know about three relationships. The first couple is Prior Walter and Louis Ironson, who have been living together for four-and-a-half years. The next is a Mormon couple named Harper and Joe Pitt. And, the last is a patient, Roy Cohn, and his nurse, Belize. The story takes place in 1986 during the Reagan years when gay rights barely existed, the Cold War made headlines, and discrimination against homosexuals was the norm; most were “in the closet.”

Directed by Nancy Curran Willis, ANGELS is set when the AIDS virus was just discovered and medical trials could mean you were as likely to get a placebo as AZT. As the Conclusion opens, Prior Walter (Peyton Pugmire) has been diagnosed with AIDS and Louis (Kendall Hodder) has left him. Prior has fantastical dreams, is visited by an angel (Sharon Mason), and now believes he is a prophet. Mason is an awe-inspiring angel with some pretty cool powers and special effects. Her interactions with Pugmire are hilarious. Pugmire portrays a range of emotions from sad to angry to stoic, and is definitely a little bit “manic” along the way. He is brilliant and fabulous to watch throwing his whole body into a scene while using facial expressions to enhance his words. I empathized with his physical and emotional pain, felt his surprise in unusual situations, and chuckled at his quips and “I got nothin’ to lose” attitude. With the grim AIDS theme, humor is essential. There is more than one reference to The Wizard of Oz at just the right moment.

With the next couple, Joe (Jim Barton) has told his mother Hannah (Elizabeth Robbins) that he is gay, so she sells her house in Utah and moves to be with him. Mrs. Pitt first takes care of Joe’s wife, Harper, then later meets Prior, the protagonist. She has her own revelations and Robbins lets us see her grow from a pushy, uninformed, coddling mother to a “with it” friend. Joe’s unhappily married wife, Harper (Jennifer Shea) still loves him, is popping pills, having hallucinations, and thinks life is all-around disappointing. Shea’s portrayal is deadpan, and she walks through scenes like a ghost, chomping Doritos and talking to statues that come to life. Joe runs into Louis, who is rebounding from Prior, and the two have a torrid 4-week affair where they talk about being gay, Mormon, republican, and a lawyer, which is funny to write and even funnier to witness.

With the last pairing, Roy Cohn (David Berti) is the wealthy, powerful lawyer who has hidden his homosexuality from the world. He forces his doctor to admit him to the hospital for liver cancer, but his doctor drops him off in the AIDS wing instead where Belize (Damon Singletary), the African American night nurse on duty, pushes all of Roy’s racist and anti-homosexual buttons. Roy is visited by the ghost of Ethel Rosenberg (Liz Robbins), one of the people he allowed to be killed during the McCarthy era. He is the obvious villain in the story, however, even though many characters do mean, hurtful things to each other. Which brings me to Singletary, a shining star in this show next to Pugmire’s portrayal of Prior. When the two are together on stage, they are hysterical. Singletary delivers some of the funniest lines in the show, acting “fabulous,” and calling it like it is. My favorite? Pointing out that when Francis Scott Key penned The Star Spangled Banner, he made the word “free’ so high so that nobody could reach it. Who forgives whom, who gets revenge, who moves on, and what new relationships are created all get resolved in the final act, under the blessing of the angels.

When you go to see ANGELS IN AMERICA, PART 2 – PERESTROIKA, be prepared for adult themes and language. It is also 3 hours and 40 minutes long with two short intermissions. For more info, go to: http://theumbrellaarts.org/