‘Angels in America’ returns, more about America than ever

Now it’s just a play.

A 6 1/2-hour play, yes, but a work of theater – not the polemic “Angels in America” seemed in the early ’90s, when Tony Kushner sprang it on California and New York, or the project that threw a bomb into Charlotte’s cultural community two years later.

The biggest surprise about “Millennium Approaches” and “Perestroika” is that the focus has shifted in this “gay fantasia on national themes,” as the author dubbed it. Now the second adjective bears nearly as much weight as the first: It’s still about what life is like for second-class citizens, but it’s more clearly about race, class and things that divide us all.

Mostly, it’s about fear. Fear of death, solitude, abandonment, self-examination or “the other” who offends us in matters of faith, politics or sex.

The worst sin one can commit in this world is to deny one’s essence: The only people left completely unhappy at the end are lawyer Roy Cohn, who persecuted homosexuals while being one, and lawyer Joe Pitt, who denies gay impulses in a terrible effort to conform to social expectations. (Maybe Kushner thinks the second worst sin is to be a lawyer.)

The focus, especially in the Charlotte Repertory Theatre production of 1996, seemed to be on Prior Walter (played here with eloquent anger by Berry Newkirk). We see him over five years in the 1980s, weakened but unconquered by AIDS, and Kushner gave him the last speech. It contains these words: “We are not going away. We won’t die secret deaths any more. The world only spins forward. We will be citizens. The time has come.”

The Carolina Actors Studio Theatre production distributes attention more evenly. Harper Pitt (poignant Robin Tynes), Joe’s Valium-addicted wife, fully emerges as a person. Compassionate nurse Belize (subtle J.R. Jones) seems less of a startling oddity – we’re used to drag queens now – and more of a complex person. Kushner is revealed as one of the few playwrights to write with equal sensitivity for men and women; Joe’s Mormon mother (sympathetic Paula Baldwin), who could be a stereotype in other hands, contradicts expectations.

CAST spent 11 months preparing the show, and familiarity gives the actors extra assurance. Co-directors Charles LaBorde and Thom Tonetti rightly see “Angels” as a series of short, impactful scenes without filler, and they asked for performances that aren’t broad so much as weighty.

Bob Paolino’s volcanic Cohn and Joe Rux’s motormouthed Louis, who’s tormented by his failure to stand by Prior, seem a bit larger than life, because they’re wrestling with feelings outside everyday experience. (Kindra Steenerson’s imperious angel does, too, but she’s not human.) Even Joe goes through emotional sea changes, and Will Triplett makes them count.

Kushner’s love of language especially shines through now. “The white cracker who wrote the national anthem knew what he was doing,” says Belize. “He set the word ‘free’ to a note so high nobody could reach it. That was deliberate.” That’s a writer with a lot on his mind and a memorable way of phrasing it.

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