Winged Victory

Arizona Repertory Theatre takes flight with 'Angels in America.'

The University of Arizona theater arts department produces some of the most ambitious stage work in the state. From marathons like Nicholas Nickelby and The Kentucky Cycle to smaller-scaled but intellectually rigorous plays like Tom Stoppard's Arcadia, the UA has a history of presenting formidable shows that require few apologies for involving students rather than old troupers.

Now the UA's Arizona Repertory Theatre is mounting Tony Kushner's Pulitzer-winning Angels in America, and its triumph, interestingly, is in making the play seem less of a spectacle than usual. It turns out to be less an epic about big issues--AIDS, rapacious Reaganism, religious confusion--than a tragicomedy about five deeply troubled human beings.

First of all, the UA is presenting only the first of the two Angels plays, Millennium Approaches. It's by far the stronger, more focused of the plays, but it does end with a cliffhanger that seems awfully puzzling if you don't know what the next three hours hold.

Second, there's not a lot of showy resetting between scenes. Michelle Harvey has divided the stage into three sectors (plus a briefly-used catwalk), allowing the action to progress quickly from Brooklyn to Manhattan to Salt Lake City to a dream Antarctica with minimum fuss but just enough scenic detail. The audience isn't distracted by stage mechanics, and can concentrate on the characters.

And what vexed characters they are. It's 1985-86, Reagan's in the White House, and leftists are in a hell pretty much of their own making. Worse, AIDS, like Reaganism, is reaching its full force, and it's looking like every gay man from San Francisco to NYC may soon be suffering a slow, painful, humiliating death. It's a horrible time to be queer in the USA.

Which is one reason that a conservative young New York lawyer named Joe Pitt can't bring himself to acknowledge his latent homosexuality. The other reason is that he's a devout Mormon, and although Mormons wear peculiar undies, the ensemble isn't supposed to include green socks on Thursday.

Joe is married to the Valium-addicted Harper, who imagines knife-wielding men in her bedroom and fantasizes about running off to the South Pole. Joe is also the protégé of the despicable Roy Cohn, who assisted Joe McCarthy in his early-'50s Communist witch hunts. Cohn is now dying of AIDS, but he denies his homosexuality to the end. "I'm a heterosexual who fucks around with men," he insists; admitting he's gay would mean that he'd be aligning himself with a group lacking any political or social clout, and Cohn's life is all about wielding and abusing power.

Joe also crosses paths with an openly gay legal clerk named Louis Ironson, who is by no means a man of iron. The horrified but guilt-ridden Joe is abandoning his AIDS-afflicted lover, the queenly Prior Walter.

Now Prior, perhaps in his AIDS dementia, begins to hear voices speaking to him in Hebrew (Louis is Jewish, but Prior comes from an old WASP family). At the end of Millennium Approaches, a beautiful, fearsome angel appears to him. In the sequel, Perestroika, the angel informs Prior that God isn't dead, but he's an absentee slumlord, and the angel needs to enlist the reluctant Prior as a prophet to help get God back. None of this is clear in the play at hand, though, so we're able to concentrate on the tribulations of Kushner's earthbound denizens.

The role of Louis, the leftist Jewish intellectual, is always a difficult one to pull off. When a national touring company presented Angels in America at Centennial Hall in 1995, Louis somehow managed to end up as the central character; but here, played by Ricky Coates as a neurotic coward babbling half-baked theories of race and politics and turning effeminate in Joe's presence, Louis becomes a peripheral nuisance.

Far more interesting are the Pitts, who seemed comparatively bland in '95. Traci S. Hartley plays Harper as a clearly mad housewife, a wounded woman who hasn't quite lost her survival instinct. L. Jay Meyer gives us a Joe notable for what he is not: arrogant or self-righteous. He's as much a coward as Louis, but he is at heart a good man, and it's obvious why part of Harper is desperate to save the marriage.

Jay C. Cotner is superb as Prior, delivering the play's most scathingly funny lines with expert timing and just the right fruity nuance. He also wonderfully conveys how wounded Prior is, both by illness and by Louis.

Then there's Brian C. Russo as Roy Cohn, foul-mouthed, manipulative, about as evil a person as we can meet in ordinary life. Russo is mesmerizingly, hilariously hateful.

Smaller multiple roles are handled expertly by Walter Belcher, mainly as Prior's best friend, a former drag queen; Akasha Mabry, most notably as a demented South Bronx bag lady; and Kelly Molloy, as everything from an old rabbi to a Mormon mom.

Ubiquitous director Samantha K. Wyer once again proves what a fine touch she has at creating a sense of real people facing unreal situations, and she maintains a wonderful balance between Kushner's comedy and his big ideas. This is a play about tolerance and hatred, power and victimization, the limits of the imagination, and the terrifying freedom we face when justice vanishes. It's also darkly funny and discomfiting, just like life.

The Arizona Repertory Theatre presents Angels in America, Part One: Millennium Approaches March 22-24 and 29-31 at 7:30 p.m., and March 25 and 31 and April 1 at 1:30 p.m. Performances are in the UA's Marroney Theatre, at the south end of the pedestrian underpass on Speedway Boulevard east of Park Avenue. Tickets cost $18 general, $16 for seniors and UA employees, $12 for students. For reservations, call 621-1162.