"Angels in America," Tony Kushner's fever dream about Ronald Reagan and AIDS, love and abandonment, has emerged as the most influential American play of the past two decades. Now about to open in its first New York revival since 1993-94, the play has survived to become a mainstay of the literary canon, produced on college campuses and taught in classrooms with the same reverence as "Death of a Salesman" and "A Streetcar Named Desire."
Sprawling and audacious - seven hours long, with scenes set in heaven and with an angel crashing through the set to bless an AIDS-stricken man as a prophet - "Angels" has even endured commercially. An HBO mini-series with Meryl Streep and Al Pacino swept the Emmys in 2004. While the New York revival by the Signature Theater Company is no surprise for this Pulitzer Prize-winning drama, theaters in Bloomington, Ind.; Denver; Salt Lake City and elsewhere are mounting the play at the same time.
A firm belief in cultural progress is embedded within the play itself. As the main character, Prior, says in "Angels," "The world only spins forward."
Written by Kushner in his 30s during the heat of the AIDS crisis, "Angels" unfolds in two parts, "Millennium Approaches" and "Perestroika." The play follows Prior, a gay New Yorker who discovers the purple AIDS lesion on his arm one day in 1985, and the swelter of humanity around him: a lover who leaves, Mormons in crisis, a closeted McCarthyite (the real-life Roy Cohn) and his enemy the formidable ghost of Ethel Rosenberg, and angels who help end the story on a note of optimism.
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The play has roused a new generation of writers, many of whom grew up after Reagan left office and in a time when HIV and AIDS had become chronic, not fatal.
What happened in Charlotte
The reach of "Angels" into the heartland came with furious protest at first. The play triggered picketing or condemnation for productions in Michigan, Florida, Texas and elsewhere. The Texas Shakespeare Festival lost $50,000 in county money in 1999 for staging "Angels."
Perhaps the biggest impact came in Charlotte, after a newspaper article questioned whether the community was ready to welcome "Angels" at Charlotte Rep in 1996. Protests raged; one headline called it a "holy war."
Such was the passion that Actor's Theatre of Charlotte in 2007 commissioned the playwright Eric Coble to write a dark satire based on the events.
Coble's work, "Southern Rapture," includes a stand-in character for Kushner and renames his play "Rapture in America." That the play opened in Charlotte last year without incident, Coble said, was "maybe a sign of where the culture is now."
A play of its time
The New York revival offers theatergoers a chance to assess "Angels" at a distance from the crisis that inspired it, and a decade into the new millennium that held out hope for "more life," as Prior says.
"Like 'Death of a Salesman' and 'Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf,' the play stakes a claim to a particular time and became the defining play of its generation," said Joe Mantello, the Tony-winning director who played Louis, the boyfriend who abandons Prior, in the show's Broadway run.
"I don't see myself in any of the characters in 'Angels,' but reading the play did make me think about what it means to be American," said New Yorker Kate Clairmont, 21. "We learned as children about the country as this 'great melting pot,' but this was the first play that reflected that idea for me. No perfect people, no perfectly happy nation. Just all of us dealing with difficult times and hoping for the future."