Theater Department hits home run with "Angels in America

By Nat French

When “Angels In America” hit Broadway in 1993, it hit hard. Playwright Tony Kushner presented AIDS as a disease with no respect for class, religion, or power. Coming at the tail end of the Reagan era, “Angels” took a long look at the American identity in a highly personal way. As Macalester professor and “Angels” director Harry Waters Jr. said, “the challenge was thrown down” for the American theater.Broadway picked up Kushner’s challenge with a vengeance, and “Angels” has defined much of what’s happened in the American theater over the past two decades. Plays like “Take Me Out,” “Rent,” “I Am My Own Wife” and “The History Boys” have explored sexuality
and transgender identities with an increasing determination. The trend reached its zenith in Edward Albee’s “The Goat,” which explores sexual standards through a man’s love affair with a goat named Sylvia. Whether or not you approve of the excesses of Broadway’s love affair with gay and transgender issues, in my opinion “Angels In America” has almost certainly been the most influential play on the American stage in twenty years.

A must-see, the play opens Friday Oct. 5. Professor Waters’ cast delivers a strong and at times moving performance. Caitlin Wells ’09 in particular stands out as Harper Pitt, the valium-addicted wife of a Mormon homosexual. Wells is comfortable using her voice and her body, and the result is a well-nuanced performance.

Eric Jones ’10, playing Prior Walter, is adept at contrasting his large onstage presence with a subtle sensitivity. When Wells and Jones are alone on stage, her tenderness and his personality affect the most honest moments of the piece.

Nisse Greenberg ’08 turns in a stable performance as Roy Cohn, although he has a tendency to lose control of his frantic character. David Wheeler ’09 understands the conflict of Joe Pitt and is properly pathetic, but his stiffness is occasionally overshadowed by Wells’ fluidity. Several members of the cast use accents that tend toward caricature and spoil some of the play’s nicest scenes, but the cast as a whole appreciates the complexities of Kushner’s script and allows its subtleties to shine through.

Waters has done a nice job balancing the play’s more fantastic elements with its cathartic realism. The play would be absurd if the cast didn’t commit entirely to the truth of what they were saying, and Waters seems to have steered clear of that pitfall. While a few scenes drag a little toward the end of the second act, and while several abrupt freezes at the end of scenes make the piece feel somewhat static, Waters and his cast keep Kushner’s three and a half hour marathon generally clean and crisp.

Anyone who hasn’t seen “Angels In America” should come see Macalester’s production this weekend or next, if for no other reason than that it’s probably the most important contemporary American play. And those who’ve already seen “Angels” can still be reminded of the play’s overwhelming magnitude by this particular production.