The Pain of Progress – ‘Angels in America’

by on September 8, 2017

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The following article was written by Jenni Page-White When Tony Kushner began writing Angels in America, all he knew was that he wanted it to be about AIDS, Roy Cohn, and Mormons. And he thought he was writing just one full-length play. But after a year of development, he had written 120 pages in which […]

The Pain of Progress – ‘Angels in America’

The following article was written by Jenni Page-White

When Tony Kushner began writing Angels in America, all he knew was that he wanted it to be about AIDS, Roy Cohn, and Mormons. And he thought he was writing just one full-length play. But after a year of development, he had written 120 pages in which his guiding image—a celestial messenger crashing through the ceiling—hadn’t appeared yet. The frustrated playwright lamented, “I can’t get these people to change fast enough!” Oskar Eustis, the play’s first dramaturg and now the artistic director of The Public Theater in New York, explains: “By the time that year ended, Tony had changed his formal problem—getting his characters to change—into the core content of the play. Angels in America is about how excruciatingly difficult, but absolutely necessary, it is to change.”

When Angels in America premiered in its entirety at the Mark Taper Forum in 1992, Kushner’s canvas had expanded into a seven-hour masterpiece, comprised of two full-length plays: Millennium Approaches and Perestroika. The epic stunned audiences with the breadth of its ideas and the depth of its humanity, ringing out as a political call to arms during the AIDS crisis. Told with thrilling wit and exuberant theatricality, it covers territory as rich and as timeless as life, death, religion, power, sexuality, justice, and democracy. Twenty-five years after the play’s groundbreaking debut, its impact is perhaps most deeply felt in the questions it asks of Americans: who are we, and what kind of country do we intend to become?

“Nothing’s lost forever. In this world, there is a kind of painful progress. Longing for what we’ve left behind, and dreaming ahead. At least I think that’s so.”
—Harper in Angels in America, Part Two: Perestroika

The play begins in 1985, in the midst of sweeping cultural and political change worldwide. Communism is in its death throes, scientists have just discovered holes in the ozone layer, and Reagan-era ideology is beginning to show its flaws. Meanwhile, the AIDS epidemic is decimating the gay population with no treatment in sight, while the White House has responded with tacit indifference (Reagan famously didn’t utter the word “AIDS” publicly until four years into the outbreak). Although Angels in America is set in a very specific cultural moment, it is always in conversation with the broader forces of human progress that define our American character, conjuring up the arduous journeys of immigrant Jews across the Atlantic, Mormons across the American frontier, and African Americans through the Middle Passage.

At the center of this expansive history unfolds an intimate drama about a group of people in crisis. When Prior learns that he’s dying of AIDS, his lover Louis abandons him, unable to face the impending downward spiral of illness. Meanwhile, closeted Mormon Republican Joe Pitt learns that his growing alienation from his wife Harper has as much to do with his sexual ambivalence as it does her Valium-induced escapist fantasies. Looming over it all is Joe’s mentor, Roy Cohn—a closeted gay man and ruthless scoundrel of a lawyer who fights disbarment proceedings while he conceals his own AIDS diagnosis and deteriorating health.

Kushner’s drama swings between bedroom realism and surrealistic hallucination, between gallows humor and divine revelation, as these characters’ lives become increasingly intertwined in unexpected ways. It seems that almost anything can happen as history begins to “crack wide open.” Harper meets Prior in a bewildering shared dream that she calls “the threshold of revelation.” The ghost of Ethel Rosenberg, whom Roy helped convict and execute, comes back from the grave to gloat over her nemesis in his dying days. And a magnificent Angel invades Prior’s dreams—or is he awake?—with an order to deliver her message to humankind.

Astonishingly, the Angel’s appearance has nothing to do with comforting a dying man. Throughout the course of Millennium Approaches, Prior is told to “prepare” for the messenger; but when the Angel finally reveals her divine command in Perestroika, it is a confusing and disturbing directive. Descending from Heaven, she bellows, “YOU MUST STOP MOVING!” Humankind’s propensity for intermingling and forward progress has disturbed the Heavens, and the Angel is desperate for humans to “turn back.” Prior, whose body is ravaged by AIDS and whose lover has abandoned him, knows that change is often a brutal, unforgiving process. But he also knows that change is unavoidable. Desire, motion, migration—these are the very essence of humanity. As Prior puts it, “The world only spins forward.”

This is precisely the reason why director Meredith McDonough (who had previously directed Part One of Kushner’s epic while she was in graduate school, but not Part Two) decided that she wanted to tackle Angels in America in its entirety. It’s in Perestroika that these characters must explicitly confront the imperative of change. Betrayed by their loved ones, by their government, and even by their own bodies, they mend their wounded hearts and forge ahead, finding a sort of grace in their connections to each other. Ultimately, it is not the Angel, but humans who have the capacity to see hope in human progress. As Harper muses, “Nothing’s lost forever. In this world, there is a kind of painful progress. Longing for what we’ve left behind, and dreaming ahead. At least I think that’s so.”

—Jenni Page-White

Purchase tickets to ‘Angels in America’ here

Actors Theater of Louisville
316 West Main St.
Louisville, KY 40202
Box Office: 502.584.1205
502.371.0956 TDD

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