Power and Desire During the AIDS Epidemic and Today: ‘Angels in America’ Comes to The Rep
“There are no angels in America,” Tony Kushner wrote in his eponymous 1991 duet of plays.
The line is delivered by the character of Louis, a nervy, neurotic New Yorker who thinks he’s talking about America’s status as a nation divorced from the weight of Judeo-Christian history. Louis sees America first and foremost as a land where Jesus never lived and the Israelites never journeyed, where politics and money have replaced prophecy and revelation as the growling engine of civic life. The irony of this line, though, is that Louis has just abandoned his lover, Prior Walter, when Prior became fatally ill with AIDS—if there are angels to be found in Manhattan, it seems Louis isn’t one of them.
“Angels in America” debuted nearly 30 years ago, and in the years since, HIV has become a manageable disease whose stigma lessens more and more as time goes on. However, in an era in which we continue to struggle as a society with inclusion of and empathy for vulnerable groups, the play still resonates with disturbing familiarity.
Image of Barrett Foa (Prior Walter) courtesy of The Rep.
The plot centers on six characters, all of whose lives have been touched not just by a devastating virus, but by callous legal and religious policies that have stripped them of life-saving resources and life-affirming dignity. Kushner beautifully miniaturizes those substantial structural betrayals in his characters’ relationships, too: Louis abandons his lover Prior on what he thinks is Prior’s deathbed; the closeted gay Mormon, Joe Pitt, is shunned by his ultra-religious mother, Hannah; and Joe himself deserts his heartbroken, agoraphobic and Valium-addicted wife, Harper, as he embarks on a journey to find himself.
There’s also Roy Cohn, a ruthless and toweringly powerful lawyer who is cruel to nearly everyone around him, even as his body rots from a disease—circumstances that quickly become an allegory for his own astonishing hypocrisy.
Image of Meredith Baxter (Hannah Pitt) courtesy of The Rep.
Pulsing beneath all of these story lines are enduring questions about power and desire, what our national and personal obligations are to one another at times of great suffering, whether there’s a higher purpose to our lives and deaths and whether or not an angel will come crashing through the wall to tell us what it is. Those are questions worth sitting with today more than ever—and a new production of the play at the Repertory Theatre of St. Louis will give you a unique opportunity to do just that.
Image of Peter Frechette (Roy Cohn) courtesy of The Rep.
From Sept. 4 to Oct. 6, theater-goers have the opportunity to see an all-star cast perform a revised edition of both parts of Kushner’s epic for as little as $20 an act. Guests can either split their time into two three-hour sessions or binge-watch the whole show in a single day; every performance will feature celebrity actors from Barrett Foa (“NCIS: Los Angeles”) to Meredith Baxter (“Family Ties”) to Peter Frechette (“Thirtysomething”).
It’s a bold start to The Rep’s new season, as well as to Hana S. Sharif’s tenure as artistic director of the storied St. Louis institution. It’s also a history-making occasion: Sharif is the first African-American woman to fill the role at any large theater organization in the region, and she’s particularly proud to kick off her Rep career with what she calls “one of the most iconic and revolutionary plays in the American Theatre.”
Tickets for “Angels in America” are on sale now at repstl.org.
Featured image: the cast of “Angels in America.” Photo by Peter Wochniak.
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