Prepare Yourself: Angels in America at the Wilma Theatre

Prepare yourself, announces the Angel, in Tony Kushner’s 1991 Angels in America, Part One: Millennium Approaches, playing at the Wilma Theatre through July 1st.  Indeed, prepare yourself to witness a rare theatrical event, a contemporary classic play by an American-Jewish playwright who weaves together Mormons, Jews, the ghost of Emma Rosenberg, Roy Cohen, Ronald Reagan and African-American drag queens.  

This inspired production is directed by Wilma’s founding Artistic Director, Blanka Zizka, Zizka writes:

“The AIDS crisis of the 1980s provoked Tony Kushner to write a play of a scope and complexity that, I believe, we had not seen before, nor have we seen since, in this country.”  “The playwright gives the play the subtitle, ‘A Gay Fantasia on National Themes,’ and clearly points out his own sexual identity and establish the vantage point for his imagination.  Through one of his characters (the Oldest Living Bolshevik in Perestroika) Kushner asks old but profoundly existential questions that reverberate throughout the whole play. . . . where do we come from? What are  we doing? . . . the play engages these questions on personal, philosophical, political and cosmic levels.”

More after the jump.
With a sparse and effective set designed by Matt Saunders, Angels delivers some outstanding performances, particularly Kate Czajkowski (Harper) and Stephen Novelli (Roy Cohen).  

Angels takes places in 1985, during the Reagan presidency when AIDS victims were often demonized and homophobia was rampant.  Even after twenty years, its themes of millennial disaster and foreboding, both personal and political — for the two are inextricable for Kushner — may be more relevant today than they were then.  In a program note, Kushner writes: “I feel going back now, that the early ’90s, the late ‘802, for all the horrors of the AIDS epidemic, were comparatively innocent and carefree times compared to where we are now. . . .so the play and the times, both feel darker to me now than they did back then.”  

Indeed with a Republican Mormon running for President, a Democratic president who professes in his memoir the New Deal is over and cites Reagan as his political model the play’s themes of identity, power, and freedom seem quite relevant today.   Kushner must have been touched by one of the Angel’s feathers for the writing possesses an aura rarely found in contemporary theatre.  Kushner has written an epoch play about what it means to be an American – whether a Communist, a neo-conservative leftist, a closeted gay Mormon, or a scion of an old WASP family — Angels asks the tough questions.  

The play opens with an old Rabbi giving a eulogy for an old woman — Louis’ grandmother — he’s never met.   But he knows this woman, he says, since she was from the old world and crossed over, bringing with her, her lineage and her memory, to be planted in the memories and bodies of her family.  In Angels, Kushner explores many “thresholds of revelation” where appearance and reality become confused.  Lines are crossed – religious, political, and sexual and laws broken.   The woman, says the rabbi, is the “last of the Mohicans.”  

What does it mean to cross over, to traverse unfamiliar ground, as all the characters in Kushner’s play do?  To be an ancient Hebrew means to be separated, to be on the other side, to be migratory, rootless, a stranger.  Indeed all the characters in Angels — whether Jew or Mormon, gay or straight, Communist or Republican, black or white — are displaced, as “the old orders are spiraling apart and lies are surfacing.”  

Kushner questions what it means to be a citizen of a participatory democracy that seems to exclude so many of its own citizens.  Can democracy succeed in America, Louis asks, at one point.  Kushner handles such weighty philosophical and moral question ss a Talmudic scholar cum playwright, pulling them this way and that with fully embodied characters that are not, thankfully, the vehicle for political ideas but flawed, fleshy, messy, ambivalent and contradictory human beings struggling with what it means to be alive on earth.

Prepare yourself to be uncomfortable, to laugh and to pray for Fall to arrive (but not yet!) so we can witness the second Act of this powerful American drama.

In the fall, Wilma will open its 2012-13 season with Angels in American, Part Two: Perestroika, which continues the epoch saga of these engaging characters.  

On Monday, June 28th at 7:30pm, there will be a free Community Conversation on “The Impact of HIV/AIDS in Philadelphia, sponsored by FIGHT.  Speakers representing Philadelphia’s FIGHT, the Mazzoni Center, the William Way LGBT Center and The City of Philadelphia Mayor’s Office for LGBT Affairs will discuss current topics and issues regarding HIV/AIDS in Philadelphia with an audience Q & A to follow.  The Wilma Theatre will also present a comprehensive exhibit which will examine the impact of HIV/AIDS in Philadelphia through cultural material.  

Angels in America at the Wilma Theatre, (215) 546-7824.  wilmatheatre.org  265 W. Broad Street, Philadelphia, PA.  Tickets range from $39 – $66 and are available at the Wilma Box Office or calling the theatre.  Discounted tickets are available for students, groups or anyone in their 20s.