PART 1 MILLENNIUM APPROACHES
Presented by The Umbrella Community Arts Center
Written by Tony Kushner
Directed by Nancy Curran Willis
Review by Craig Idlebrook
(Concord) There was a time we would like to forget in U.S. history when AIDS was a painful, quick, and lonely death sentence, one largely suffered by gay men. The gay community was stratified into victims and survivors, and everyone was scared and scarred. Yet amidst this plague, the gay community did not break, having developed an inner strength in the face of years of oppression that galvanized it to action.
I have never seen this period in time captured with such a queer sensibility during Angels in America, now playing at the Umbrella Community Arts Center. Tony Kushner’s script so perfectly dodges and weaves through the AIDS epidemic, never once going in a straight line or giving into the temptation to become misery porn. As a closeted and ostracized community comes to terms with a sickness with seemingly no cure, the lives of those affected messily carry on. AIDS may be on everyone’s minds, but there is still plenty of time for gossip, politics, and psychoanalysis. Moments of terror give away to self-involved monologues or Seinfeld-worthy coffee shop talk. And yet in the midst of this very secular world, we catch glimpses of something miraculous and terrible happening, when angels and ancestors appear to the dying and the crazy. We may never know where Kushner is going, but we know he does, and we are willing to let him lead us to a deeper understanding of life, death, and love.
There is a secret rhythm to Kushner’s script, and the cast of the Umbrella is largely able to access it. Under the capable direction of Nancy Curran Willis, the actors largely avoid the potential landmines of sentimental Lifetime movie moments and fill the cavernous stage at the Umbrella Community Arts Center with energy. There are some crackling moments of dialogue and drama, and some unforgettable characters in this story of interweaving lives.
This play does such a good job at making us love and hate every single person on stage. David Berti is scary good as Roy Cohn, a powerful gay conservative lawyer without scruples; Cohn walks through this world like a buzzsaw, and Berti makes every scene must-watch theater. Jennifer Shea (Harper) also owns the stage during her prolonged monologues as a paranoid mentally ill woman who happens to be right in suspecting her husband’s homosexuality. In contrast to Berti’s rapid fire delivery, Shea unravels her text slowly, as if each thought is a wall of cotton candy her character must pass through.
There is a community theater ethos about this play that can be charming, but also can be problematic, as when a frightened stagehand had to come onstage to control a prop during a pivotal ending scene. And the play finally gives in to a touch of melodrama towards the climatic ending, when there is more shouting than in an Al Pacino movie from the nineties. But this production does a good job staying in its own zone to access Kushner’s exquisite dialogue and thus allow the audience to discover something special about the heartbreak of everyday life.