Angels in America, Part 1
Cultural Arts Building, UNCW
11/15-18, 8 p.m. or Sunday matinees,
2 p.m. • $5-$12
Part one of “Angels” follows the events of two families whose lives converge in New York City circa 1986. At rise the audience is attending the funeral of the grandmother of Louis Ironson (Phillip Antonino). His longtime lover, Prior Walter (Zac Thornton), picks this moment to tell Louis that he has “KS” or Kaposi’s sarcoma, then one of the indicators of what was to be known as “AIDS.” Meanwhile Joe Pitt (Eddie Ledford), a straight-arrow Salt Lake City Mormon lawyer, has been summoned to a meeting at Roy Cohn’s office. Cohn (Cullen Moss) offers Pitt an appointment with the U.S. Justice Department to work directly with Ed Meese. Pitt’s life is far more complicated than Cohn imagines: comprising all the structures and expectations of his Mormon upbringing with a crumbling marriage to the mentally unwell pill-addict Harper (Kelly Mis).
I found myself wondering how a cast composed primarily of “The Millennial Generation” would depict “Millennium Approaches.” Dr. Belser, the new chair of the theatre department, wants to expand work with guest artists, which contributes to the invitation of noted performer Cullen Moss, who joins the production. The decision is inspired. I unabashedly have been a fan of Moss’ work for over a decade now. The role of Roy Cohn (much like his personality) dominates the show—even when he is offstage. This is not the young Roy Cohn of the McCarthy Era and the Rosenbergs; this is Cohn at the end of his life, with AIDS. It would be very close to impossible for an 18-year-old performer to bring the necessary experience and depth to depict a dying Cohn, who wrestles with demons that few people could fathom. From the moment we meet Moss’ Cohn, we see the incredibly complex individual Kushner needed to hold up his epic saga. Here is a man who genuinely believes himself above all laws and repercussions, but is finding that, though it can be put off for a long time, reprieve will not be indefinite. The trap of Cohn would be to see him only as a bully or a monolith, whereas the part is written with great humor and layers. Moss consciously portrays Cohn as a courtroom advocate, playing to each person he encounters as a jury member, making one laugh, frightening another and buttering up a third. What Cohn wants, Cohn gets; he will employ any means necessary.
However, the entire cast of “Angels” is excellent! Director Ed Wagenseller deserves credit not only for brilliant casting choices but also truly fostering an ensemble; there are no weak performers who bring down the show. A couple of highlights include Eddie Ledford, Kelly Mis, Maria Katsadouros and Phillip Antonino. Ledford and Mis have two really difficult roles that could be easily undervalued. They play a married Mormon couple, the Pitts, whose marriage is crumbling largely because Joe is in denial that he is gay. Unlike the denial that Roy Cohn has—which still involves acting upon that attraction—Pitt is praying for God to take the burden from him and make him straight. Ledford’s genuine kindness and concern toward everyone he meets permeates his performance, making his marital strife all the more believable. Even though I know the script well, I almost expected to hear Mis say, “Just hit me and get it over with; it would hurt less.” It is Ledford’s kindness which kills them both. It is also his gentle and genuine, kind concern for Cohn that plays such a juxtaposition in their scenes together. What is, in fact, Pitt’s strength, Cohn sees as a weakness, because he has never been loved to such a degree. Ledford genuinely portrays a man in torment, who, though gay, loves and cares for his wife, and knows he is part of what is destroying her. The other part lies in the unreasonable expectations of their Mormon upbringing and culture.
Mis embodies an unenviable drug addict in a constant state of delirium. That she succeeds in making her lines organic and not sound memorized and forced proves difficult for any actress. Yet, Mis genuinely springs anew each and every moment through her tortured mind. Oddly, she also manages to show us what Kushner wanted: In her ability to face the secrets and obfuscation of our society, she sees more honestly what is happening around her than any of the other characters who believe themselves to be well-grounded in reality.
I will miss Maria Katsadourous when she graduates. She has been a consistently shining star on the UNCW stage for the last few years. It seems fitting to see her portraying several characters and her range as an actress in her final university performance. From the rabbi at the opening of the show to Joe’s mother, “the only unfriendly Mormon,” to Ethel Rosenberg’s ghost which haunts Roy Cohn, she builds solid, three-dimensional characters that are singular and distinct.
Phillip Antonino’s resemblance to Kushner is uncanny; how fitting, too, considering his role, Louis Ironson, remains the most auto-biographical role in the play. His fear and regret come through in all his body language: stooped shoulders, whining speeches, flight response to almost every conversation. It’s impressive that neither he, nor any of the other young actors portraying gay characters, make a slip into “limp wrist” stereotypes. Antonino and his compatriots all portray real human beings, who have jobs, hopes, dreams, aspirations, fears and happen to be attracted to people of the same gender.
Director Ed Wagenseller has outdone himself with an almost perfect marriage between Kushner and Bertolt Brecht’s Epic theatre. His production concept takes Kushner’s plea for transparency one step further. Beginning with the looming door at the back of the stage, we move through a world where all the ugliness and honesty is bare for us to see. It is a powerful parallel against the carefully constructed façades of each character’s life. An homage to Greek theatre and its structure, the door serves as a powerful reminder that the lies we create for others and ourselves can be far more painful and damaging than the violence we see. Easily the best UNCW play I’ve seen in a year, this script is monumental—not only in the scope of the work but also what it represents in the modern American experience.