Justin Weaks, playing Mr. Lies in Angels in America: Millennium Approaches at Arena Stage in Washington, D.C.
Justin Weaks (Mr. Lies) 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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Endings are harder than beginnings, so you can understand, if not applaud, Arena Stage’s decision to re-mount only the first half of Angels in America, Tony Kushner’s landmark “gay fantasia on national themes.” Set circa 1985-6 and first performed in San Francisco in 1991, this bifurcated seven-hour opus about AIDS and gay male life in Ronald Reagan’s America has only grown more haunting in the decades since Reagan’s seductive greed-good, government-bad ethos curdled into feral Trumpism.

The show’s last local appearance, a strong 2016 co-production between Round House Theatre and Olney Theatre Center, included Perestroika, its thornier and even longer second part. (Arena’s new gloss on part one, Millennium Approaches, runs the customary 3.5 hours, including one 15-minute intermission, though Kushner’s published script recommends two.) Arena hasn’t yet said when, or if, they’ll do Perestroika. That’s a pity, but not a reason to deprive yourself of Hungarian director János Szász’s stirring, panoramic take on Millennium for the in-the-round Fichandler Stage, wherein a nimble cast, balanced among D.C. regulars and out-of-towners, manage to make Kushner’s epic feel intimate.

One of the ways the show still seems magical is by conveying the enormity of the AIDS epidemic, and of the culture at its Reagan-era inflection point, with only eight actors. All occupy multiple roles, a “compromise” usually dictated by the economics of the theater, though one that director Mike Nichols chose to keep for his 2003 HBO miniseries adaptation of Angels.

Twenty years after that, designer Maruti Evans has covered the Fichandler stage with sand, into which the Angel (Billie Krishawn) traces patterns and symbols before the show formally begins. More sand falls periodically from overhead, hourglass style, where an array of chandeliers are suspended in painter’s plastic. It’s all suggestive of impermanence and decay, an elegant visual metaphor for the ways AIDS is eating away at Prior Walter’s body even as he begins to experience ecclesiastical visions. Nick Westrate is our exposed and enraged Prior, while Michael Kevin Darnall is believably self-loathing as Louis Ironson, Prior’s misnamed partner. Louis abandons Prior, unable to witness his lover’s suffering, for a more tentative new relationship with the closeted Mormon court clerk Joe Pitt.

John Austin is a compelling Joe, but Deborah Ann Woll is even better as Harper, his spouse, who is dealing with both a Valium addiction and her husband’s sexual disinterest in her. In her drug-addled isolation, she conjures up an imaginary companion, Mr. Lies. Kushner suggested the character be costumed as a jazz musician, but costume designer Oana Botez has styled the superb Justin Weaks, who plays Mr. Lies and also the sympathetic nurse/drag queen Belize, more like Super Fly, wrapping Weaks’ slender frame in canary-yellow feathered topcoats and fluorescent green suits. Harper is a largely passive character until fairly late in Perestroika, but Woll makes us believe Harper has emotional resources we haven’t seen yet. (Another reason to yearn for this cast to finish the story: I want more of Weaks’ Belize, who’s more of a presence in Part Two than in Part One.)

Angels has several scenes that use the cinematic technique of cross-cutting among two conversations occurring in different places. Szász is also a filmmaker, but I’m not sure that’s why he handles these intercut scenes, where Joe and Harper quarrel at the same time Prior and Louis are quarreling, for example, with such clarity and elegance. In a big bowl like the Fichandler, a director only has so many ways in which to govern where we choose to look, but Szász keeps our attention exactly where it ought to be in every moment.

Growly, jowly Ed Gero is commanding as fixer Roy Cohn, the show’s sole portrait of a genuine historical figure (unless you count his hallucination of Ethel Rosenberg, whose execution Cohn confessed to having helped secured after Ethel and her husband, Julius, were convicted of espionage in 1953). Cohn became a close aide to Red-baiting Senator Joseph McCarthy, and later, lawyer and mentor to a young Donald J. Trump. He used his influence to become part of an early clinical trial of AZT, one of the first antiretroviral drugs used to treat AIDS, before he died in 1986, insisting to the end that the malady killing him was liver cancer. That last part gets dramatized in the play, as does Cohn’s demented—but not unique—insistence that because he is powerful, he is not gay, even though he habitually has sex with men.

Kushner’s genius was to recognize he didn’t need to invent a villain, because Cohn contained within him all the vengeance, hypocrisy, and mania the playwright would need to dramatize the American fracture over a terrifying new plague successfully. Thirty years later, that plague has been largely mitigated, but the vengeance and hypocrisy remain. I’ve no expectation of any angel crashing through the ceiling. Mere Perestroika, or Szász directing this cast in Perestroika, would be mercy enough.

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