‘Angels in America’ to fly again at CAST

One director remembers friends who passed away, shamed and secretive, in Toronto’s “Gay Ghetto” 30 years ago.

The other director remembers being a high school principal whose drama teacher died of AIDS “while our government said, ‘It’s those ‘other people’ who have the disease. Why put funding into it?”

The producer remembers the vow he made when Carolina Actors Studio Theatre moved into larger quarters in NoDa three seasons ago: to do big plays nobody else was tackling locally.

All three remember the brouhaha over “Angels in America” in 1996, when Charlotte Repertory Theatre did it to packed houses, unwanted attention from national media, picketers and condemnation from Mecklenburg County commissioners. (This event was so famous it’s in the play’s Wikipedia entry.)

And they’ve spent a year preparing the two-part, seven-hour “gay fantasia on national themes,” as playwright Tony Kushner called it. It opens Wednesday.

“I have a different respect for the play now,” says co-director Charles LaBorde. “I always thought it was a good piece of drama, but now I understand Kushner’s world. I grew up a Cajun kid in Beaumont, Texas, 50 miles from his hometown of Lake Charles, but I think I know what it was like being a gay Jewish kid growing up in Louisiana.”

“I had never seen or read the play before I said ‘yes’ to it,” says co-director Thom Tonetti, who moved here from his native Canada in 1994. “When the whole thing happened in Charlotte in 1996, I didn’t want to immerse myself in that: I’d just had two close friends die, and they hadn’t even told me they were sick.

“But the issues in this play are relevant. You don’t automatically die of AIDS now. But on my drive to work today, people were talking about the equality of gay marriage.”

Both halves, “Millennium Approaches” and “Perestroika,” won Tony Awards for best play. The story follows Prior, a man dying of AIDS whom an angel has declared a prophet; Joe and Harper, a closeted gay law clerk and his Valium-addicted wife; Belize, a former drag queen who becomes a nurse; and Roy Cohn, based on the real lawyer who hid his homosexuality behind attacks on gay people.

CAST artistic director Michael Simmons, who is lighting this production, was thinking about the show when he landed his new building. After opening with “August: Osage County,” he says, “we were exhausted physically, so we couldn’t come to it quickly. But I was convinced if we did it, we could sell it out.

“After we did ‘Chad Deity’ last season, I knew we had a Belize in J.R. Jones and a Roy Cohn in Bob Paolino. Charles and Thom told me actors would come out of the woodwork to be in this show, and they did.”

The directors auditioned more than 100 people last June, distributing roles among CAST regulars and people who seldom or never worked there. (Berry Newkirk, who plays Prior, had had a minor role in “Marat/Sade” years ago.)

They held table reads through January, then went into four months of full rehearsals. Not one actor left to take a more lucrative role in commercials, film or TV through that year, which often happens in Charlotte.

“It’s been a kind of mission for all of us,” says Tonetti. “The people I knew who are gone did not die invisibly. I come out of this show with a sense of hope.”