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It’s presumably just coincidence that, at each of two modestly scaled, subscriber-dependent theater companies in the Washington suburbs, there is a striking production of an ambitious AIDS play—each of which dares to be brutal, dares to woo the audience with language as well as with story, dares to reach beyond narrative to grapple with larger truths.
They are hardly theatrical twins: Tony Kushner’s Angels in America, Part One: Millennium Approaches, at Signature Theatre in Arlington, traffics in anticipation and hope; David Rabe’s A Question of Mercy, at Maryland’s Olney Theatre, trades in despair, personal failure, and the inevitability of death. Rabe maintains focus on things intimately domestic and individually psychological in a drama that considers one man’s desire for a merciful death and another’s crisis of courage when he’s called on to help bring it about; Kushner spans worlds temporal, spiritual, and political in a fantastical allegory that weaves in Mormon and Jewish belief, left- and right-wing identity politics, Valium-induced hallucinations, and climactic visits from an angelic herald and the ghost of Ethel Rosenberg.
But Angels and Mercy are dramatic cousins, at the very least: Both authors believe in the elemental force of prose poetry, in the power of theater to shape ideas—and both plays have in them the potential to be profoundly moving.
That neither of these productions entirely succeeds—though in each there are moments of harrowing emotional intensity—is of course owing in part to various directorial decisions or actorly failures or writerly choices, but it may also have a little to do with that shameful but inevitable end-of-the-millennium numbness that the social-policy sorts have called “compassion fatigue.” We have confronted the plague for nigh on two decades now, and though it still speaks powerfully to our common humanity, the catalog of its evils may have less than immediate capacity to devastate.
And yet. And yet. Neither of these plays is “just” an AIDS play—Rabe is at least as interested in the emotional limitations of a perfectly healthy character as he is in the tragedy of his patient—but at the center of each is a sufferer. In Angels, it is Prior Walter (Rick Hammerly); in Mercy, Anthony Calderon (Jose Carrasquillo)—and one undeniable fact about both works is that the characters who are sick also turn out to be the characters who are strongest. Hammerly’s frantic, blistering outrage when the hospitalized Prior confronts Louis (John Lescault), the lover who’s leaving him, defines the Signature production’s most riveting scene; Carrasquillo’s ferocious, almost greedy desire to die—to escape the revolting indignities and horrific degeneration of late-stage AIDS—is the most potent force on the Olney stage. “You will be an instrument that I will use,” he tells the doctor whose help he’s trying to enlist, and his tone is at once pleading and hypnotically, irresistibly insistent. Both actors give unforgettable performances in roles that define the structure if not the entire scope of these plays—which makes it all the more puzzling that the Washington Post’s reviewer chose to sum up Hammerly’s contributions in a throwaway sentence.
Performances that drew more ink in the Post are in fact among the Signature production’s chief weaknesses: Neither Paul Takacs, as the morally confused Mormon lawyer Joe, nor Lescault is anywhere near as convincingly conflicted as Olney’s Christopher Lane, who’s dead-on perfect as Anthony’s lover, Thomas, wrestling not just with doubts about the idea of assisted suicide but with the fear of loss and the jealous, irrational worry of being shut out of the decision making that will bring it about.
Angels’ Takacs, clean-cut and angular, more or less looks the part of a good-hearted Mormon whose principles lead him to an unholy alliance with—of all people—Roy Cohn, but there’s something off, something brutal and sinister, about his performance; his eyes are too hard, his clipped smile too much that of a raptor. In the scenes where Joe and his wife, Harper (Melissa Flaim), deconstruct their collapsing marriage, Takacs seems more resentful and angry than sorrowful and troubled, and he’s simply not believable as a man wrestling with suppressed desire for other men.
Flaim is more sympathetic, but she’s a whit too self-aware; her escape into drug-induced haze and hallucination while Joe works late and wanders later comes across as too conscious a maneuver to inspire the kind of ache it should. Marcia Gardner, Craig Wallace, Kimberly Schraf, and especially Paul Morella (as the rasping, ranting Cohn) do themselves great credit in the parts that knit the sprawling Angels tapestry together. Mitchell Hebert does similarly good work as a not-too-bright doorman who disrupts a carefully laid plan at Olney, though Mercy’s Helen Hedman makes her crisply suited, headband-wearing Susanah far too brittle and efficient a creature; the character exudes a sort of Swoosie Kurtz competence and brisk compassion, but she’s hardly the sort to be Anthony and Thomas’ warm, concerned best friend.
The most crucial failure of characterization in either play, though, is Lescault’s at Signature. Louis—who abandons the ailing Prior because he simply can’t handle the ugliness of disease and the knowledge that it will only get worse—needs to inspire the audience’s affection before he inspires its anger; he must make us hurt as much for his weakness as for Prior’s heartbreak when the betrayal comes. To his credit, Lescault handles Louis’ wildly spiraling, neurotic-navel-gazer dialogue with aplomb, but this is a performer who never seems to feel emotions so much as act them—and to act them always at least one degree too broadly. When his Louis leaves, the only thing you want to tell Prior is that it’s good riddance.
James Slaughter is less showy but much more successful in an equally pivotal part at Olney. His Dr. Chapman is Mercy’s narrator and central focus, a man who learns his limits when he confronts a seemingly straightforward question. (His importance to the play is underscored by the fact that the last production in Olney’s repertory was Peter Shaffer’s Equus, another drama in which a man of science learns to number his resources.) Rabe wants audiences to measure their own principles and sympathies and resolve against Chapman’s, to consider whether they would fare better in a situation where questions of loyalty, self-knowledge, and self-interest all have different answers. That Slaughter is able to sadden us—but not alienate us—by his actions is the measure of his talent.
Directors Jim Petosa (at Olney) and Lee Mikeska Gardner (at Signature) both realize that their authors have written humor as well as pathos, though Gardner may be a trifle too aware of that fact; especially in Millennium’s last half hour, laughs tend to get in the way of the drama’s building momentum. Petosa, for his part, has assembled a cast that fits his play better than Gardner’s (always excepting the outstanding Hammerly), though he does let Rabe’s sometimes circular narrative drag a bit too much.
If there’s an area in which both productions succeed without reservation, it’s design. James Kronzer’s minimalist-chic apartment set for Mercy uses the same series of white-webbed doors and walls he employed for Equus; here, the lacy textures of the characters’ surroundings suggest both the winter they’re surviving and the impossibly complex cellular fabric whose destruction means that Anthony will not survive. At Signature, Lou Stancari frames the stage with jagged marbleized slabs and shards that evoke the urban towers, monumental confines, and Antarctic wastes of Kushner’s locales.
There is also, of course, the writing: Kushner’s diamond brilliance and outrageously complex flights of densely politico-philosophical prose hold together a bit better than Rabe’s relatively relaxed efforts, though both men find a dark poetry in the manifestations of disease. Kaposi’s sarcoma lesions are “the wine-dark kiss of the angel of death” to Kushner, while Rabe’s Anthony speaks of lesions that “sprout from me every day; I think it is my anger that fertilizes them.”
Rabe has perhaps a tendency to ask his characters to speak aloud the observations he wants the audience to make: “You seem very disturbed on this point, Doctor,” says someone at a point where it’s perfectly obvious that Chapman is wrestling with his conscience. It’s a weakness that, along with a long, slow first act, renders Mercy more intriguing than moving at a gut level.
Of course, Millennium Approaches is basically a three-and-a-half-hour first act; Signature is already in rehearsal for Perestroika, the Angels conclusion, in which we learn what message Schraf’s winged herald carries when she arrives at the end of Part One. Here’s a hint: It has to do with alloyed hope—the idea that we are left to our own devices, but that our own devices and resources may be sufficient.
If only Rabe believed that. It’s where he and Kushner part ways: Rabe finds mankind wanting and looks to the heavens for mercy. Kushner, at great length and with enormous optimism, tells us to look to ourselves. Which of them is right, of course, is not an answer that theater can provide. CP