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Eugene Weekly : Theater : 11.23.11

Love in the Time of Plague

Trial By Fire gives wing to Angels in America

It’s almost impossible for anyone who came of age in the post-Reagan world to grasp the totalizing terror of the early AIDS epidemic. Before the drug cocktails, before the heroic efforts of activists and alliances, before anyone knew what the fuck was going on — before any of this, there was an abysmal undercurrent of fear and denial that gripped the country like a collective waking nightmare. AIDS was the elephant in every room, in every nightclub, brownstone, bathhouse and college dorm. It felt like doomsday. Everything was unspeakably scary, and nobody was immune. The plague spread at the intimate intersections of human desire, and the silent, insidious collision of sexuality and disease was like a cruel joke. Tag — you’re it. Death sentence.

It seems unthinkable, but we appear to have grown glib and cavalier about HIV/AIDS these days. Through some combination of exhaustion, apathy and ignorance, we’ve improperly assimilated and prematurely dismissed the disease — relegated it to the attic like some Gothic monster, out of sight and out of mind. But the fact remains: 1.2 million people in the U.S. have HIV, and one in five don’t know it.

If timing is the single most elusive element of artistic success, then the folks at Trial By Fire TheatreWorks score points simply for daring to mount a production of Angels in America in Eugene, 2011. The first part of Tony Kushner’s Pulitzer Award-winning play, Millennium Approaches, originally premiered in San Francisco in 1991. It debuted on Broadway in ’93. Immediately recognized as an American classic, Angels in America — which, when combined with part two, Perestroika, runs over seven hours — is a sprawling, ambitious, complex, confounding epic that seeks to capture the entire warp and woof of the AIDS zeitgeist; the play gives texture and context, breadth and depth, to the epidemic, treating it not as an isolated issue but as an existential crisis of the culture itself.

Utilizing a sort of homegrown magical realism, Kushner creates three overlapping and intertwining stories that embellish and impact each other like shouts in an echo chamber. Despite the play’s uncommon length, Angels clips along quickly due to the episodic and serial nature of Kushner’s writing; short, sharp, emotionally explosive scenes go off like a string of ladyfingers, one after another.

Trial By Fire producers Benjamin Newman and Emily Hart and director Carol Massahos have whittled Kushner’s script to the bare bones (the play still clocks in at three-plus hours), and their pacing is surprisingly sure and accomplished. Often, another scene is underway before the previous scene’s actors have left the stage, and thanks to tight staging and lighting it all goes off without a hitch.

Kushner was unabashed about employing grand gestures and expansive theatricality to make it all work — angels descending from on high and all that — and Massahos, aided by Michael Walker’s spartan set design, pushes her talented cast to embody the cosmic awe of Angels. A shiver, a glance, a spot of light — these are enough to impart the immensity of the vaulting heavens. In this sense, TBF has achieved the dramatic equivalent of building a ship in a bottle.

A large portion of the play’s effectiveness rests in the intricacies of Kushner’s dramatic architecture, a strange triptych of stories that unfolds and then folds in upon itself: There is Roy Cohn (Michael P. Watkins), the cynical, narcissistic, power-obsessed Washington lawyer who refuses, out of sheer hubris, to admit his homosexuality, and therefore his disease (he says he has “liver cancer”); mentored (and manipulated) by Cohn is chief clerk Joe Pitt (Bruce Lundy), a closeted Mormon whose violent self-abnegation has driven his wife Harper (Emily Hart) into the psychic hell of addiction.

Joe himself forms a tentative relationship with word processor Louis (Ryan Olson), a tormented, guilt-ridden Jew whose boyfriend, Prior (Newman), is HIV positive, and whom Louis has abandoned in the hospital out of fear and self-loathing… and ashes, ashes, we all fall down, in a cycle of alliances and betrayals that evokes the complicated paranoia and persecuting fear of Ronald Reagan’s America during the early days of the epidemic.

A shout out goes to the rest of the cast, which includes TBF stalwart Chip Sherman, Nancy West, Ellen Chace, Matthew Bonham and Michael Walker. Several of these actors take on dual roles, and despite their small numbers they carry this difficult production with poise and a striking sense of engagement.

Angels in America, subtitled “A Gay Fantasia on National Themes,” is just shy of unwieldy in its ambition and reach. Kushner attempts nothing short of conjuring a complete social and political accounting of an era — not only the demographic realities of the time but how it felt in the guts to live through it — and in so doing he pulls out all the dramatic stops. Perhaps not since Tennessee Williams or Eugene O’Neill has the American stage hosted a playwright who strives to such existential heights, and plumbs such ontological depths. That Trial By Fire manages to squeeze Kushner’s sweeping epic into the confines of a community theater without bleeding the play of its grandeur and scope is pretty damn impressive.

The production is not without its flaws, though, ironically enough, they have more to do with subtraction than any sort of lack. For instance, Newman and Hart might have stopped a bit short in paring down the play: Why not completely cut out the subplot of Louis’s grandmother’s funeral, and open with Roy Cohn’s phone tirade? Remove Joe Pitt’s mother from the proceedings as well, and the production might be honed to a sort of present-tense immediacy. Such suggestions, however, are a luxury, and they wouldn’t arise were the play not as good as it is.

With Angels in America, the folks at Trial By Fire succeed in turning austerity into an asset — they breathe new life into a classic work of art that might cow more established and endowed theater companies, and in so doing they shine a light on a crisis that is still very much with us, in the here and now. Once again, they have hit their mark. 

Angels in America: Millennium Approaches runs through Dec. 10 at Reality Kitchen, 245 Van Buren; $15, trialbyfire.org or 683-1429.