With its emotional language and poetic imagery, Tony Kushner's Angels in America - the playwright's "gay fantasia on national themes" composed of two parts subtitled Millennium Approaches and Perestroika - is among my favorite scripts. And there are times at which the District Theatre's production of Millennium Approaches nails the nuances of Kushner's writing, allowing the beauty of his intent to be on full display.
This was nowhere more true during Friday's performance than in the scenes involving Anthony Natarelli's Prior Walter and John Antonin Dieter's Louis Ironson, a couple coping with Prior's recent AIDS diagnosis. In one scene, Louis is cradling Prior's head, offering him physical comfort while Prior attempts to emotionally comfort Louis, who is struggling to cope with his lover's pending death. It's evident in the way Dieter holds, looks at, and speaks to Natarelli that his Louis truly adores Prior. However, there's an inner turmoil in Dieter that's also clear, as Louis' fear of losing his partner threatens to overpower his love. Natarelli, on the other hand, plays the scene with a brave inner joy, smiling and laughing as Prior offers encouraging words to Louis. This scene's mixture of sadness and cheer, melancholy and humor, completely encapsulates Kushner's layered writing.
Such nuance does not, however, permeate most of director Tristan Layne Tapscott's staging. Instead, he and his cast embrace the sorrow of Kushner's plot and place it at the core of their presentation, and in doing so, neglect much of the play's humor. This makes for a dreary three hours (with two intermissions) that drags at times, and it doesn't help that Tapscott's lighting effects are also dim, leaving the actors too often in shadow, which adds to the gloom of the piece. Tapscott does, however, alleviate some of this by including well-chosen incidental music which, though also somber in theme, at least adds artistic interest to his production.
Part of my issue with this presentation of Millennium Approaches lies with the theatre space itself, which Tapscott has filled with platforms and steps to differentiate locales within the play. These black pieces are accented with blocks of white brick on the black walls. Yet while interesting, this design - built within the venue's already confined performance space - leaves the actors little room to move. This problem is most evident in Andy Curtiss' and Kaitlin Ross' scenes as troubled spouses Joe and Harper, he a closeted Mormon and she a pill-popping agoraphobic. In their scenes, the somber, emotionally stunted Harper resides on a tiny platform with a small staircase leading up from it, and while she's restricted in her movement, Curtiss has nowhere to stand other than on a small platform at the top of that little staircase. Not only is Curtiss left in shadow, but the couple's awkward placement inhibits their interaction, as Curtiss is usually seen standing head, shoulders, and torso above Ross.
Fortunately, Curtiss is much more visible in Joe's shared scenes with Pat Flaherty's Roy Cohn, as well as during his time with blossoming love interest Louis, and Joe's amicability and underlying curiosity are finely rendered in Curtiss' appropriately (if a bit stereotypically) friendly Mormon figure. In contrast, Flaherty's Roy - a powerful, self-denying gay lawyer recently diagnosed with AIDS - is an aggressive, manipulative, ethically deplorable human being, and the performance is so perfect that it seems like the actor (who is much nicer in real life) was born to play the role.
The rest of the cast members inhabit more than one main character, though Curtiss, Flaherty, and Ross also portray a few lesser figures. Jordan McGinnis offers an energetic Mr. Lies, the travel agent who dwells in Harper's Valium-induced hallucinations, but his Belize - a former drag queen and Prior's best friend - could use some more oomph. (McGinnis' subtle, believable effeminacy, however, is commendable.) Nancy Teerlinck impressively handles an accurately-accented Rabbi Chemelwitz; the somewhat tired, masculine doctor Henry; Joe's mother Hannah, an uncharacteristically crotchety Mormon; and a haunting Ethel Rosenberg, a ghost who blames Roy for her execution as a Communist spy. (Teerlinck manages to hide her femininity in her male characters, and she's aided by Tapscott's costuming choices and some superb facial-hair applications.)
Sara Wegener, meanwhile, extraordinarily differentiates her characters in countenance and vocal quality. Prior's nurse Emily has a no-nonsense attitude and heavy New York accent while Hannah's best friend Ella is much more friendly and feminine, and Wegener's "Woman in the South Bronx" comes with a facial tic, a cocked head, and over-dramatic bursts of words that give away her disturbed mental state. Wegener also plays the angel that appears to Prior mostly in voice, but what's most notable is Wegener's design for the character's wings, which are stylish and goregous.
Even with its faults, the District Theatre's Angels in America: Millenium Approaches is not a production to overlook. It's a shame the players don't have a bigger space and better lighting in which to play, but they still pull off some touching moments.
Angels in America: Millennium Approaches runs at the District Theatre (1623 Second Avenue, Rock Island) through November 23, and more information and tickets are available by calling (309)235-1654 or visiting DistrictTheatre.org.