Billie Krishawn, playing the Angel in Angels in America: Millennium Approaches at Arena Stage in Washington, D.C.
Billie Krishawn (The Angel) in Angels in America, Part One: Millennium Approaches at Arena Stage at the Mead Center for American Theater running March 24 through April 23. Photo by Margot Schulman.

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An angel with white feathered wings and a long black coat (Billie Krishawn) walks barefoot in a slow spiral, raking the sand that surrounds a dark pit while a voice lists names of those who died in the AIDS pandemic. Chandeliers wrapped in thick, translucent protective plastic hang from above. This opening movement is not in the published script of Tony Kushner’s Angels in America, Part One: Millennium Approaches, but having seen the work of director János Szász when he was in residence at Harvard’s American Repertory Theater, I know him to never be content to present a classic, even a modern classic by a living playwright, as others have before.

While the word “sand” does  appear early in the dialogue, through Maruti Evans’ set design, Szász has elevated sand into a visual and tactile motif: Props are buried or rediscovered; legs of furniture start to sink soon after they are placed by the stage crew. Metaphors come to mind: Sands of time; sand slipping through one’s fingers; kicking sand. 

Angels hinges on the dissolution of two relationships: that of Louis Ironson (Michael Kevin Darnall), a Jewish intellectual, and his boyfriend, Prior Walter (Nick Westrate), the 37th in his lineage to bear the name since the first Prior Walter fought alongside William the Conqueror, who has recently been diagnosed with AIDS; and that of a Mormon couple living in Brooklyn, Joe Pitt (John Austin), a law clerk at the US Court of Appeals, Second Circuit in New York, and his wife, Harper (Deborah Ann Woll), who self-medicates her agoraphobia and anxiety with copious amounts of Valium. The couples’ paths cross when Louis, who works as a word processor for the court, picks up that Joe is in the closet, and when Prior’s dreams crossover with Harper’s hallucinations.

Missing from the printed program is the play’s subtitle: A Gay Fantasia on National Themes. Kushner rooted his stories of gay male life during the AIDS crisis in Reagan-era politics: Joe is a protege of attorney and political fixer Roy Cohn (Edward Gero gives a wonderfully bombastic scenery-chewing performance), who is angling to get Joe an appointment at the Justice Department to serve as his inside man. Cohn, as it would come to be widely known after his death, was also closeted and what he claimed to be “liver cancer” to friends, colleagues, and the general public was actually AIDS. Sections of the AIDS Memorial Quilt including the panel remembering Cohn as “Bully Coward Victim” (which I had seen in my student days) is currently on display in Arena Stage’s lobby.

Other characters are drawn in, with Justin Weaks playing both Belize, the former drag queen, Prior’s prior boyfriend and nurse on the AIDS ward who has had quite enough of Louis’ navel-gazing, and Harper’s imaginary friend, Mr. Lies, of the International Order of Travel Agents, who moves like a Bob Fosse trickster, and Susan Rome, playing Joe’s mother, Hannah, and an earlier victim of Roy Cohn, Ethel Rosenberg. Darnell carries much of the dramatic weight as the play’s most conflicted character, Louis, made up to resemble a young Kushner, whether in his self-loathing as he first considers fleeing Prior’s AIDS diagnosis, or when his intellectualization of the problems of American democracy blind him to Belize’s lived experience as a gay Black man. 

Oana Botez has created extraordinarily fantastic costumes for Mr. Lies and Prior’s ancestors (Austin and Gero), two prior Priors who visit him in a dream having centuries ago succumbed to medieval and early modern plagues, as well as the tallit that trails many cubits behind the elderly Rabbi Chemelwitz (Rome), who officiates the funeral of Louis’ grandmother. (Incredibly long scarves, veils, phone cords, and star-spangled tablecloths are another visual and tactile motif in this production.)

History does not repeat, but there is an eerie rhyming between Angels’ 1985 and our own era: Harper is anxious about environmental destruction; Cohn had not only served as Senator Joseph McCarthy‘s chief counsel but as an attorney for real estate developer Donald Trump and his influence on the former president (whose indictment by a New York grand jury was announced just before the opening night’s show began) is recognizable. Likewise, Cohn’s denial of his AIDS diagnosis parallels the predilection of Trump’s reelection campaign for becoming COVID super-spreader events, and the anti-vaccine, anti-masking conspiracy theories of the political right. When Cohn brings Joe to dinner with Martin Heller (Woll), an assistant to Attorney General Edwin Meese, Heller articulates a multi-decade legal strategy to dismantle liberalism. Most obviously, Kushner’s instructions that the play should be staged with genderqueer casting—several of the actors double as both male and female characters—seems to presage the current culture war on drag performance.

Even at 3 hours and 45 minutes (with intermission), Part One ends with several cliff-hangers, and it’s not certain that Part Two: Perestroika will be staged next season. One can hope. (Spoilers for a 31-year-old play: The angels are real, and the 1980s continue to unravel.) Still, Angels is bolder and more radical than the fare that Arena Stage and other regional theaters regularly present. Due to budgetary issues, playwrights with big ideas must fit them into shorter run times, tell them with smaller casts, and seek out the rare theater willing to take a chance on something strange. In the literary departments of many American theaters, “ambitious” is a code word for “well-written but unstageable.”

As thrilling as Szász’ staging of Angels may be, it is still a touch too radical for some in Arena’s presumedly liberal audience. They may feel safe enjoying the visual spectacle, political satire, and personal drama, but when for a few brief seconds an actor’s penis was exposed, there were audible gasps of shock. Whether it’s male nudity or challenging storytelling on an epic scale, the nation’s regional theaters have long played it safe. Perhaps artistic leaders were more daring in 1987, when Oskar Eustis and Tony Taccone of San Francisco’s Eureka Theater commissioned a two-part play from a little-known playwright, but that it happened at all, and continues to be remounted is a miracle.

Angels in America, Part One: Millennium Approaches by Tony Kushner, directed by János Szász, runs to April 23 at Arena Stage. $56–$95.