In 1928, award winning American playwright, Eugene O’Neill, opened a play on Broadway titled “Strange Interlude;” which won the Pulitzer Prize for Drama, among other awards. It was an epic play of nine acts. If uncut, the play was about five hours in length. Therefore, it sometimes included a dinner break.
In 1992, American playwright, Tony Kushner, opened a play on Broadway titled “Angels in America,” which won the Pulitzer Prize for Drama, among other awards. It is an epic play of seven acts. If uncut, the play is about seven hours in length. Therefore, John Munn, the Managing Artistic Director of the Lakewood Playhouse and the Director of this current production has decided to run “Angels” in repertory on two different nights, with Part One, “Millennium Approaches” on Fridays and Saturdays at 7 p.m. and Sundays at 2 p.m. Part Two, “Perestroika,” plays Sundays at 7 p.m. This means that on Sundays, if so inclined, you may see Part One at 2 p.m. followed by Part Two the same day at 7 p.m.
Not only does this give the audience a needed break, it gives them time to think about and discuss what they have seen and marvel over this unique production of “Angels in America: A Gay Fantasia on National Themes.”
This theatrical experience is more than a look at how the AIDS virus hit our country in the 1980’s, it goes into the affects it had on diverse people of the times, heterosexual as well as homosexual; caregivers and families of affected men and these men’s metaphorical fantasies. But, most importantly, it is a love story about loving and accepting the investment it takes to maintain that love.
Munn has poured his own heart into the production. Anyone long in theatre has been affected by this threatening disease; most have known friends touched by the waste of good people’s lives.
Munn started his epic journey with “Angels” more than nine months ago when he chose his Stage Manager, Melissa Avril Harris. According to Munn, Harris fell into the role whole heartedly with the full knowledge of the time commitment involved; she has not faltered, but given the director the soundboard and back-up help he knew he would require to mount this production.
Then there was the problem of finding nine appropriate actors to fill the roles who would be willing to make such a lengthy commitment. “Angles” was cast in April, 2018. Most shows have a four- or five-week rehearsal period. This one had nine months. There were discussions about character portrayal, delving into the subplots and meanings of Kushner’s words; just getting to know their character and agreeing on their relationship with the rest of the characters in the cast.
There was the time Munn and his production staff put into designing a production of these epic proportions: more than 200 scene changes; 400 light cues; dozens of sound cues; and handling a “fly-wire;” and all in Lakewood’s intimate space.
Success for Munn and his cast and his crew. “Angles in America” is an intriguing production of a fascinating play about an on-going part of our country’s history.
Associate Managing Artistic Director James Venturini does the scenic design. Venturini uses every inch of the central stage, including the loft and even, at times, wandering into the audience area. The designer places one bedroom upstage left; another is upstage right. The center of the stage is open to changing into a myriad of locations by the actors bringing on and off a modicum of set pieces using astounding, well-directed and well-rehearsed chorography. Viewing this is an added entertainment.
Mark Thomason does the amazing lighting design, the audience is given a dark mood with sometime disco lighting accents; there are lighting flashed, follow spots, special spots which change color at the drop of a toggle and flash across the stage – there is never a hint as what will happen next; most importantly, Thomason’s design matches the play’s moods perfectly.
Munn does the sound design, which, although has fewer cues than the lights, it still enhances the story to a “T.”
Stu Johnson does the sometimes surprising costume design; with his assistants, Mel Johnson and Ariel O’Neil Smith. Alyana Stephens is Properties Master.
As stated by Munn, Harris is the dream Stage Manager; she is assisted by Aaron Mohs-Hale, who is also the Special Effects Coordinator; Tyler Petty; and Erik Hill, who is the Puppeteer.
Munn’s cast is incredible. Even the “small” parts are huge in meaning, if not line load. Most actors play more than one role, large or small, but each moves the story along and adds to explanation of the play as a whole.
Erik Hill is Henry, Rabbi Isidor Chemelwitz, Martin Heller, Prior 1, and Aleksil Antedilluvianovich Prelapsarianov. Hill steps out of his actor’s roles to don the role of the Puppeteer, who, akin to the Chinese Theater Prop Master, wears black to become a non-person as he guides the “fly-wires” for the Angel to keep them from tangling and allowing her to fly straight.
Shannon Burch is Harper Pitt, the wife of our man reluctant-to-admit his true sexuality; Burch is likewise unable to understand her own identify; after realizing she is married to a homosexual, she covers her disappointment with the aid of Valium. The actor’s mood swings keep the play with the following ups-and-downs of her emotions. Burch finally lets Harper gain enough courage to leave Joe and search for her own life. Burch also plays Angel of Africanii.
Jennifer Niehaus-Rivers is Joe’s mother, Hannah Pitt, Ethel Rosenberg, and Angel of Asiatica. As Hannah, Niehaus-Rivers gives the audience a flighty mother eager to help her son in all his endeavors, even to moving from her home in Salt Lake City to New York and getting lost when looking for Brooklyn. The actor makes the mother oblivious to her son’s sexual dilemma; she is little help with his wife but finds solace in working with others. As Ethel Rosenberg, Niehaus-Rivers changes her looks and attitude to a patient ghost of a woman awaiting her chance to bask in the confusion of the person she believes is responsible for the death of her husband and herself.
Rachel Wilkie is The Angel; among sever other roles, including the off-stage Voice of The Angel, Sister Ella Chapter, a Homeless Woman, Mormon Family Mother; and Orrin, a Mormon child from the exhibition at an LSD church. As Emily, the nurse, Wilkie is glib with a smart-mouth response to everything. Wilkie does a good job on each of her other roles. However, as The Angel, who visits Prior to tell him he is a prophet, the consummate actor is a marvel! She appears from the heavens, flying onto the stage with enormous wings of real feathers with the ease of a celestial body who has performed this role in true life – or death – as one imagines a true angel would.
Tony L. Williams plays several parts; his main role is of Belize, a former drag queen, who used to be Prior’s boyfriend which morphed into best friend. This talented actor also plays Mr. Lies, one of Harper’s imaginary friends; Caleb, a son in the Mormon family exhibit; and Angel of Oceania; finally, Belize becomes Cohn’s nurse. Williams’ transition from each role is spot on, especially when he shows his undying love and friendship for Prior and his hatred for but caring care he gives Cohn.
Joe Regelbrugge is Joe Pitt, the somewhat devout Mormon who can’t quite admit, even to himself, that he is married to a cool woman whom he tolerates but doesn’t really love. Each time his dutiful wife approaches him, a not-too-transparent wall appears between them. During the course of the play, it becomes apparent that Joe’s problem is that he hasn’t accepted the reality of his sexuality; he finally acknowledges this, which Regelbrugge does in degrees of disbelief until the actor finally allows the character to admit the truth to his character and others in order to establish a liaison with Louis.
W. Scott Pinkston plays real-life Roy Cohn, the loud-mouthed, closeted gay lawyer. Cohn was best known for being Senator Joseph McCarthy‘s chief counsel during the Army–McCarthy hearings, in 1954, and for assisting with McCarthy’s investigations of suspected Communists, including Julius and Ethel Rosenberg, which concluded with the Rosenberg’s executions in 1953. As the Senator’s chief counsel, Cohn came to be closely associated with McCarthyism and its downfall. He also represented and mentored Donald Trump during Trump’s early business career and was known as a top political fixer. Just as in history, it is eventually revealed that Cohen had contracted HIV. When the disease progressed to AIDS, he insisted it was liver cancer to preserve his reputation. Pinkston interpretation of the character is alarmingly accurate, full of sound and fury and signifying his failure in life
Jason Quisenberry is Louis Ironson and Angel of Australia. As the later, the actor is an equal of the other Angels in dual roles. As Louis, Quisenberry brings out all the emotion of a man deeply in love with his partner and just as frightened by the prospects of this new disease, which only attracts gay men and is always fatal. The actor’s fear is as real as is his devotion. However, his desire for sexual encounters and his desire to seek a way to avoid the inevitable with this partner causes him to search for a new lover. Somewhat reluctantly, the actor allows Louis to look to Joe for help.
Kenyon Meleney plays Prior Walter and Man in the Park. As Prior Walker, Meleney brings forth all the love, doubt of his own life and potential death; his choices and fantasies and dramatic flights of fancy and morphing into other worlds through dreams and delusions. Meleney is excellent in the role; on top of the world one moment and buried in its depths of dismay the next. The actor does a nice bit where he emulates Norma Desmond in costume and actions. Meleney also plays a small part of a prostitute who approaches and consummates a lesion with Prior’s true love.
“Angels in America,” continues at The Lakewood Playhouse in the northeast section of the Lakewood Towne Center, just behind the Pierce Transit Bus Depot through March 20. As this unique production is in repertory, “Part One (Millennium Approaches) plays each Friday and Saturday at 7 p.m.; “Part Two, (Perestroika) plays each Sunday at 2 p.m.
For more information or reservations, call the box office at (253) 588-0042 or go online to www.lakewoodplayhouse.org.
Lakewood and Munn’s decision to mount this epic story of this historic era comes at a very propitious time. According to an article in the Wednesday, March 6 edition of the (Tacoma) News Tribune, there has been an enormous break-through in the fight against HIV. The article by Apoorva Mandavilli states that a second patient has been cured of HIV with the use of bone-marrow transplant, which were intended to treat cancer. The article also states that, in Europe, Stem Cell transplants are used to treat HIV infection. Dr. Annemarie Wensing a virologist at the University Medical Center Utrecht in the Netherlands, said that she could be able to cure both cancer and HIV infection was surreal and overwhelming. She added, “I never thought that there would be a cure during my lifetime;” and said, “It’s reachable.”
These scientists prove there are Angels in God’s Heaven as well as on earth.