This is the long overdue North Florida premiere of this controversial play and will probably be the only opportunity you will have to see it in this area. In the times right after “Angels” won all the 1993 awards (which, in addition to the Pulitzer, included four Tonys, one for Best Play), it was so controversial that picket lines were created in some cities that dared stage it. The play was banned in a number of school districts throughout the country and remains banned in many schools, including all public schools in Duval County.
Kushner’s epic play is an intense, graphic, exploration of gay sex and politics in the 1980s. He subtitled it “A Gay Fantasia on National Themes, and divided into two parts, “Millennium Approaches” and “Perestroika,” which are most often staged separately. In “Millennium Approaches” as presented at Players, eight actors play a total of twenty roles to perfection, projecting the fantasies, visions, poetic language, and dreams of ordinary and extraordinary people of the era.
The most identifiable character is the real life figure of the notorious attorney Roy Cohen (Hays Jacobs), who became famous for prosecuting communists during the McCarthy era. He is powerful, corrupt, greedy, and anti-Semitic and opposes gay rights while hiding secrets behind his facade. When a doctor tells Cohen he has AIDS, he insists he is a heterosexual who fools around with guys, and he will tell others he has liver cancer.Josh Waller is Joe Pitt, the quiet Mormon law clerk from Utah, who is exploited by Cohen, and who has struggled to suppress his homosexuality. His life is complicated by his marriage to the Valium popping Harper (Patti Menefee). Daniel Austin is Prior Walker, who, dying with AIDS, is paired with Billy Speed as Louis Ironson, his terrified lover who eventually leaves him. The relationships of Prior, Louis, Joe and Harper are the heart of the play. Kelby Siddons plays four very different roles ranging from a street bum in the Bronx to a hospital nurse to The Angel. Caroline Lee appears in four roles, the most important being that of Hannah Pitt, Joe’s mother from Utah. She also opens the show as a Rabbi; plays Henry, Cohen’s physician; and appears briefly as Ethel Rosenberg. David Girard is a showy and flamboyant gay who is a male nurse. In probably the most humorous role in the play, Girard appears as Mr. Lies, a very unusual travel agent.
Director Sam Fisher has done a magnificent bit of casting, selecting very talented, and, most importantly, very versatile, actors who use their considerable acting chops to bring these distinct, interesting, and often challenging characters to life. Fisher’s direction brings marvelous pacing to the play’s twenty-six scenes. And he keeps the focus on the two couples and how they face pain, loss, and hopelessness.
The open stage had a back wall stacked high with wood pallets, and various set pieces – benches, tables, beds – were moved on and off by cast members and a backstage crew under the direction of Stage Manager Luke Weidner. The impressive set was augmented by the dramatic lighting scheme designed by Jim Wiggins.
Costume Designer Krystal Camille White used clothing that ranged from casual to formal, and also included colorful fantasy pieces.
The performances of all the actors deserve high praise. The only suggestion we have concerns a couple of scenes that occur toward the back of the stage. Some of the subdued dialogue was difficult to understand and the actors could punch up their projection a notch or two to help the audience hear all the significant words.
Before the play begins, be sure to read the notes in the program by Dramaturg Holly Gutshall about how “Angels” became a modern classic and a most interesting story about the real Roy Cohn.
This is a play that delves into the subjects of sexual orientation and AIDS in detail; patrons who have lost friends or loved ones to this devastating disease may find the play traumatic. The play is also about political corruption, moral deceit, and spiritual hypocrisy. It is the kind of play that reveals more and more layers of relevance with subsequent viewing. The play contains adult language and sexual situations. And while it runs three hours and twenty minutes (with two intermissions), the action on stage is captivating throughout.