Angels in America Part 1: Millennium Approaches, produced by Intiman Theatre Festival

In 1991 when Part I of Tony Kushner’s two-play cycle, “Angels in America” burst upon American stages its impact was deafening. The modern era of the Gay Rights movement was in its early stages, in many respects driven by the horror and heartbreak of the AIDS epidemic that was still a medical conundrum and little understood by the general public. Here was a play that dealt with that tragedy, and it won a Pulitzer, a Tony and just about every best play award possible.

But “Angels…” is about far more than the impact of AIDS. It’s about loyalty and selfishness; its about the price of having to live a life of lies; it’s about the diversity and number of our non-heterosexual neighbors both the powerless and the powerful; and it’s about justice and compassion. For me, it isn’t the bombshell it was when first produced. Society has, in many respects, moved on, and this play is one of the reasons it has. It’s shock and awe are not quite as explosive, but it is still good theatre with resonating issues beyond the AIDS epidemic. It is, however, a bit too long, and we still have Part II “Perestroika” to look forward to.

Intiman’s production, directed by Andrew Russell, plays out on Jennifer Zeyl’s spare stage on which elegance is combined with adaptability. Kushner wanted that effect and he certainly got it here. The open stage with its grey walls, platforms, and massive doors is bleak yet a space of power.

The characters include Roy Cohn and Ethel Rosenberg as well as fictional people. Many of the actors play numerous roles, just as Kushner’s instructions demanded, and overall the acting is sound. Especially good are Adam Standley as Prior Walter and Timothy McCuen Piggee as Mr. Lies and the flashy Belize.

I’m sure Charles Leggett and Director Andrew Russell conferred long and hard about how to present the Roy Cohn role. What they came up with didn’t work for me. Cohn in life was quintessential New York. Here he’s angry, powerful, and used to getting his way, but he hasn’t got that New York crispness. The other weakness was Alex Highsmith who plays two roles. She makes a better wife than man.

When the end finally comes and the angel floats down from the heavens, we all know it’s coming. But Marya Sea Kaminski, the magnificently garbed angel just takes our breath away.

Whether you saw it before or are seeing this play for the first time, you won’t leave the theatre unaffected.

Through Sept. 21 (playing in repertory with “Part II Perestroika” from Sept 3) at Cornish Playhouse, 201 Mercer St., Seattle (or 206 315-5838 or boxoffice@intiman.org).

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