Angels in America
by Brian Coats, Education Programs Associate
NOTE: This Play Guide may contain mild spoilers about the story of the show. If you like to be completely surprised by the play, you may wish to wait until after seeing it to read the Play Guide.
September 4 – October 6, 2019
Part One: Millennium Approaches – What’s the Story?
It is October 1985, fifteen years before the millennium, and Louis Ironson discovers that his partner, Prior Walter, has been diagnosed with AIDS. In the same city, Joe Pitt, a Republican Mormon and closeted homosexual, is taken under the wing of McCarthyist lawyer and power broker Roy Cohn. At home, Joe’s wife, Harper Pitt, struggles with a Valium addiction as she tries to hold onto reality. As their broken lives crumble around them, Joe and Louis meet and find stability in one another, while Prior, in his deteriorating state, begins to wildly hallucinate under the watchful eye of his friend, Belize. Meanwhile, Roy Cohn falls ill and finds that he is in the advanced stages of AIDS. Joe’s mother, Hannah Pitt, relocates to New York to try and repair her son’s failing marriage.
In the midst of all of this, larger angelic forces prepare for a ceiling-shattering finale to Angels in America, Part One: Millennium Approaches, and “The Great Work Begins.”
Part Two: Perestroika – What's the Story?
*Spoiler alert* You may want to wait until you have seen Part One: Millennium Approaches to read this synopsis.
Perestroika begins where Millennium Approaches ended: the Angel has just crashed through the ceiling of Prior’s apartment to deliver a prophetic message, “Mankind must stop moving.” Roy Cohn is hospitalized as his condition worsens and finds himself under the care of Belize, Prior’s friend and a nurse. Newly appointed prophet Prior sets out on a quest for information, and finds Hannah Pitt and Harper Pitt, who are trying to re-orient themselves in Joe’s absence. Louis and Joe’s combative perspectives cause a rift in their relationship, as does Louis’s guilt over leaving Prior.
As Tony Kushner’s gay fantasia reaches its grand climax, the Angel revisits Prior in an attempt to redirect the future, and Prior is faced with a choice that will affect all of mankind.
Angels in America, Parts One and Two, is now playing in repertory on The Rep’s Browning Mainstage.
The Evolution of Tony Kushner’s Gay Fantasia
“A play about AIDS, Roy Cohn, and Mormons.”
– Tony Kushner’s original pitch of Angels in America to Oskar Eustis and Tony Taccone at the Eureka Theatre, as detailed in the Slate.com article “Angels in America: The Complete Oral History,” written by Isaac Butler and Dan Kois.
The Rep’s 2019 production of Angels in America may be the first time that the company has produced Tony Kushner’s epic work, but it is not the first time that Angels have visited Webster Groves. In fact, this year’s production marks a full-circle moment for the piece, which was first born as a poem written during Kushner’s NEA directing fellowship here at The Rep. Now, nearly 40 years later, The Great Work returns.
Kushner’s “gay fantasia on national themes” has come a long way since that poem written in November of 1985. First commissioned by the Eureka Theatre in San Francisco, the work was intended to be less than two hours long, and a play with music. An early description of the play, as confirmed by Kushner in Slate.com’s “Angels in America: The Complete Oral History,” listed its characters as “‘five gay men and an angel.’” Today, Angels in America is well known for its length (two parts, four acts total, often with a runtime between six and seven hours), its dry wit and visceral drama (no songs are written into the script), and its varied cast of characters (of various ages, races, religions, sexualities, genders, political inclinations — all performed by an ensemble cast of eight). However, a lot of what makes Angels in America such a driving work in the American theatre canon can be explained by going back to Kushner’s original pitch for the play, as quoted above.
First, it’s “a play about AIDS.” In 1985 and 1986, when the play is set and when Kushner first began to develop it, AIDS was a well-known threat to the LGBT+ community, as it took lives within the community at an alarming rate. However, the United States government, under the Reagan administration, would not publicly acknowledge the crisis until 1987, after the deaths of thousands. Before and after the acknowledgment, the community was largely isolated, ignored, attacked and blamed for the crisis due to their lifestyle choices. Kushner’s play explores the resulting anger and loss of this time in history through a collection of characters who are dealing with the disease personally, know someone who is suffering, or are discovering the reality of the epidemic for the first time.
Second, it’s a play about Roy Cohn. Cohn was a real person, an America lawyer who was well known for his involvement in the Joseph McCarthy investigations, as political power broker and fixer, and the personal lawyer of Donald Trump. Kushner notes in his script that his character is merely based on Roy Cohn, but the laser-focused details have made the real and the fictional very hard to separate. In Angels in America, Roy Cohn is faced with those who suffered at the hands of his communist witch-hunt, most notably Ethel Rosenberg. The character is both powerful and powerless, immortal and human—a true dichotomy of American ideals that further explores the play’s “national themes.”
Finally, the play is about Mormons. To be more accurate, the play features many Mormon characters, who are not at all defined solely by their faith. Spirituality, faith, belief, religion, fate— all are explored through a collection of characters that fit into so many roles, with all different sorts of commonalities and differences, that to define them by one trademark is to ignore their depth and personification as truly human, fully realized, American people.
While Kushner’s play may have started off as “a play about AIDS, Roy Cohn and Mormons,” it has become a work that far surpasses those broad categories. Historians and critics continue to explore its place in America’s past, present and future; theatre-makers continue to explore its grand scale and dramatic possibilities; and audiences continue to explore its place in their own lives.
Join us for Angels in America: Parts One and Two, as the conversation continues, and The Great Work moves forward.