Angels in America: A Gay Fantasia on National Themes is a piece of the queer canon for the way it depicts the state of America, specifically New York, during the AIDS epidemic of the 1980s. Tony Kushner’s remarkable script overlaps the lives of five gay men and their families, nurses, coworkers, and neighbours over two parts, approximately six and a half hours of stage time, while also establishing these stories deeply within the political, economic, and social framing of the Reagan years.
This script is an epic in both scope and proportion. Kushner deftly conveys the enormity of the AIDS epidemic on the gay and queer community without discounting the nitty, gritty personal details of his characters’ lives. Their stories are textured and complicated while also engaging directly with the state of the world in which they’re living where Reagan is leading the US deeper and deeper into Republican, right-wing political and social attitudes which will have real economic and life-threatening consequences for the marginalised. In this way, Angels in America is almost a predication, a warning, for the repeating history in the current US government.
While this script is immense, Dino Dimitriadis matches it with his direction and his clear vision of what this text values: living. This production is big, especially considering the size of the Old Fitz’s blackbox stage. Jeremy Allen’s set design cleverly allows for transformation from bold in battles with angels to barren in hospital rooms and empty apartments. With rotating panels, sliding doors, and numerous hidden compartments, Allen turned the blackbox into a puzzle box of ever-new configurations. Lighting design from Benjamin Brockman and sound design Ben Pierpoint filled the space often thunderously. Not fearing silence or darkness, the two designs were dynamic interpretations of space.
The cast assembled for this production is outstanding in the humanity and vulnerability they bring to their characters. Gus Murray as Joe Pitt against Catherine Davies as his wife Harper Pitt are desperate and struggling to overcome their shared disappointment and shame. Davies as a lonely and Valium-addicted young Mormon wife is particularly engaging as she wanders through real and imagined spaces, predicting the end of the world with a dry wit. The other romantic couple of the production, Prior (Ben Gerrard) and Louis (Timothy Wardell), are devastating to watch come together and fall apart over the course of Prior’s diagnosis, treatment, and recovery. This is the confronting personal reality of illness, isolation, and stigmatisation. Gerrard is brilliant when in denial, when afraid, when lost, and when on the other side, building another life for himself.
Other characters such as Belize (Joseph Althouse) both best friend and nurse in the thick of the epidemic, Maggie Dence as another nurse and the Angel of America herself, Hannah Pitt (Jude Gibson), Joe’s religious mother, and the egotistical conservative lawyer Roy Cohn (Ashley Lyons) form the chain of consequences, imperceptible individually perhaps, but collectively devastating in their tragedy stemming from the state of 1980s America.
The story isn’t all tragedy and heartbreak. The true power of Kushner’s script and Dimitriadis’s production of it is the way Angels in America looks towards the future and proclaims hope for change. Individually, the characters learn what they need and begin to ask for it whether that’s Joe exploring his sexuality, Harper leaving New York, or Prior rejecting Louis. Contextually, there is a sense of a cultural shift on the horizon and, considering this play was written soon after its setting, this prediction is profound in its hope. The world of 2019 looks different from that staged here; the characters would have had different options now than those available under Reagan. As the progress of human rights, economic and social freedoms, and global acceptance fluctuate with every election year, works like this one advocate for honest and generous hope for the future.
Angels in America is running at the Old Fitz Theatre from February 15th – March 16th as part of the Sydney Gay and Lesbian Mardi Gras.