In paying respects at the passing of Sarah Ironson at the start of “ Angels in America Part One: Millennium Approaches,” Rabbi Isidor Chemelwitz of the Bronx Home for Aged Hebrews speaks of the 1985 United States as a “melting pot where nothing melted.” Later, Ironson’s liberal gay grandson Louis will claim there are no angels in America.
Both when Tony Kushner’s Pulitzer Prize and Tony Award-winning play first opened on Broadway in 1993 during the AIDS epidemic and now 30 years later, the fictional rabbi’s comment still stands as antisemitism, racism and homophobia polarization persist. Kushner’s always timely and transcendent gay fantasia remains a forceful call for caring and understanding – now in a heavenly collaborative revival by Bedlam and Central Square Theater on the latter’s home stage.
Bedlam Artistic Director Eric Tucker – who portrays Roy Cohn in many of the revival’s performances – quickly establishes that forcefulness by having the corrupt Republican lawyer move swiftly from call to call on his phone system (with actors ringing with their voices) while seated in an office chair with wheels. At the performance this critic attended, Steven Barkhimer was commandingly imperious as Cohn swore, ordered, and maneuvered. At times, the Bedlam director transforms key items as scenes and sequences change – for example, morphing a simple large white sheet from a burial shroud to a bed covering, and even a Gloria Swanson diva wrap.
Tucker’s trademark spare approach particularly hones in on the contrast between the play’s focal couples – word processor Louis and his AIDS-stricken boyfriend Prior Walter on the one hand, and pill-popping Mormon wife Harper Pitt and her ostensibly straight Republican husband Joe on the other. Ironson has trouble dealing with Walter’s sickness, while Joe is struggling to come to terms with his strong attraction to men. For her part, Harper seems eager to have a baby. Kushner has Louis speak of the total complexity of a life, and the same goes for these couples and Cohn – who sees protégé Joe as a kind of prodigal son and denies he has AIDS, calling his illness liver cancer.
The playwright includes observations as true today as in the 1980s. Harper worries about a hole in the ozone layer and melting icebergs before concern about climate change became current. A colleague of Cohn’s speaks about abortion issues, making the Supreme Court conservative, and turning around liberal political impact – all still very much in the news.
By contrast, the powerful revival’s talented cast members perfectly connect with their roles. Barkhimer smartly balances Cohn’s volatile outbursts and his fatherly counsel with Joe. Eddie Shields captures Walter’s anguish with Louis and tenacity in the face of pressure. His Gloria Swanson-Norma Desmond close-up is a highlight.
Zach Fike Hodges – who is Jewish and gay – finds all of Louis’ Jewish guilt and self-doubts. Kari Buckley catches Harper’s growing need to escape. Nael Nacer sharply develops Joe’s attraction to Louis. Maurice Emmanuel Parent, properly jazzy as unconventional nurse Belize, beautifully understates the Black ex-drag queen’s reaction to Louis’ rattling tirade about antisemitism and racism. Debra Wise is a standout as the tallit and kipah-wearing rabbi and equally convincing as Joe’s traditional mother Hannah and the ghost of Ethel Rosenberg – whose visit to Cohn is brilliantly lit by designer John Malinowski. Helen Hy-Yuen Swanson makes the most of the approaching Angel.
Look for “Part Two: Perestroika” in September. Θ
“Angels in America: Part 1,” runs through May 28 at the Central Square Theater, 450 Massachusetts Ave., Cambridge. For tickets, call 617-576-9278, ext. 1, or visit centralsquaretheater.org.