Saturday, May 25, 2024

Maurice Emmanuel Parent, left, and Zach Fike Hodges in “Angels in America” at the Central Square Theater. (Photo: Nile Scott)

It is the year 1985. “Angels in America” opens with a funeral, a rabbi (Debra Wise) presiding over the body of an elderly woman who undertook a perilous journey to America to live “in this melting pot, where nothing melted.” The deceased is the grandmother of Louis Ironson (Zach Fike Hodges), a gay Jewish man who is too uptight to introduce his WASP boyfriend, Prior Walter (Eddie Shields), to his family. Later that evening, Prior reveals to Louis that he has Kaposi sarcoma, a symptom of what was then called the gay cancer, or AIDS. In another part of the city, Mormon couple Harper and Joe Pitt (Kari Buckley and Nael Nacer) are struggling – Harper with a pill addiction and Joe with his latent homosexuality. Joe’s boss is the nefarious lawyer (and mentor to none other than Donald Trump, a fun fact not mentioned in the play) Roy Cohn (Steven Barkhimer, in this performance). Cohn also has AIDS but wants it to be on the record that it’s liver cancer. Cohn feels gays are effeminate and considers himself merely a man who likes to sleep with other men. As both couples fall apart – Louis can’t handle Prior’s illness, and Harper can’t handle the fact that Joe isn’t attracted to her – new connections are forged through dreams and reality. 

It’s a beautiful, prescient play grounded in reality with a spiritual, otherworldly element. Harper communes in hallucinations with Prior and Mr. Lies (Maurice Emmanuel Parent); Prior communes in hallucinations with his ancestors (Barkhimer and a lively Nacer). He also hears a voice who turns out to be an Angel (Helen Hy-Yuen Swanson), who tells him, among other things, that while others will die of AIDS, he will live. Kushner’s vision includes a frightening conversation between Cohn and a PR man named Martin Heller (Buckley), who boasts, “The Supreme Court will be block-solid Republican appointees, and the federal bench – Republican judges like land mines, everywhere … a permanent fix on the Oval Office …” Yikes.

Tucker’s elegant direction of his flawless cast makes a three-hour show feel more like one and a half. Cast members with hidden truths emerge from under white sheets. Flashlights are hand-held as stage lights to illuminate innermost thoughts. Shields gives a bravura performance as the haughty and vulnerable Prior. His agony over his betrayal of Louis is absolutely heartbreaking. Hodges portrays Louis with sympathy; we can see he is truly frightened and overwhelmed despite his self-hatred. Nacer conveys a range of emotions in the buttoned-up, tortured Joe, and Buckley is both sorrowful and giddy as Harper. Parent lends humor and compassion as Belize, the friend of Louis and Prior who nurses Prior, and Barkhimer is perfect as the snappish, effeminately macho Cohn. Wise shines in a number of roles, including Ethel Rosenberg, who is called from the other side to sing Cohn to his death (Cohn was instrumental in giving her the death penalty). Swanson is sympathetic as the nurse and, of course, The Angel. Deb Sevigny’s stripped-down set design, which changes with each act, suits the emotional landscape of the piece.

Sometimes – but not often – a show is so good that I become too absorbed to take notes. The last time this happened was during a production of Danai Gurira’s “The Convert,” done at this very theater. It happened at this show. It was just so damn good that this was a hard review to write. I just wanted to shout across the page and into your ear, “You have to see ‘Angels In America’!” 

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