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Ryan Rilette recently called Angels in America “the best play ever written about American political life.” If you have any doubt about the Round House Theatre artistic director’s assertion, he more than makes the case with his authoritative direction of Perestroika (). Under Rilette’s guidance, the second of the two Angels plays is an awe-inspiring, insightful theatrical marvel, building on and surpassing the dramaturgical success of Jason Loewith’s equally momentous Millennium Approaches.
Taken together, the two productions, running in rep at Round House in an unprecedented collaboration with Loewith’s Olney Theatre Center, offer the kind of once-in-a-lifetime rewards that bucket lists are made for. Given their exceptionally entertaining and compelling presentation of a wide-range of complex subject matter, these master-class productions are a treat for anyone and everyone who appreciates or engages in politics, policy and the law, not to mention religion, American history, gay culture and minority rights. If one or both of these productions doesn’t become your Hamilton, they’ll certainly make the shortlist.
It will take some personal sacrifice to realize. Kushner’s magnum opus requires a commitment of seven hours — across two evenings, or one long day — to see both Angels. Ninety minutes pass before the first of two 10-minute intermissions in Perestroika. It’s the more daunting of the two, but also the most enriching. The Pulitzer Prize-winning Millennium Approaches serves as the prologue for Perestroika‘s main event, but you really have to see the former to fully appreciate the latter.
In Perestroika, Prior Walter wrestles his Angel and stands up for the hopes and desires of his fellow humans. It’s where Kushner’s flights of fancy become thresholds of revelation, in terms of religion and his sense of heaven and the afterlife — which here looks a lot like the gay mecca of San Francisco — but even more in his prescient analysis of progressive politics, race relations, American patriotism and pride. He may not conquer AIDS, but he does hold the disease up to the light, exposing gay men as citizens deserving of the same rights as everyone else. Angels was written in the early ’90s, years before the dawn of a post-AIDS LGBT movement and a full generation before today’s era of marriage equality. The progress made in the decades since is exactly the kind of thing that inspires Prior to reject his prophecy and the Angel’s plea for stasis and tradition.
A huge part of Perestroika‘s joy lies with its glimpse of Heaven and its historical interpretations of divine intervention. James Kronzer sets the stage perfectly for us to imagine a celestial city. Through the skills of video designer Clint Allen, we see scenes from Joseph Smith’s prophetic journey to Salt Lake City; Allen’s projections are often blended into the action in impressive, innovative ways. The way it’s all been brought to life on stage by the huge creative team Rilette employs — including York Kennedy on lights, Joshua Horvath on sound and D2 Flying Effects, the team behind the flying Angel, played with soaring intensity by Dawn Ursula — is dextrous and delightful.
Eight actors work in tandem to make Perestroika uplifting and utterly moving — from Jon Hudson Odom’s heart-of-gold Belize to Jonathan Bock’s increasingly sympathetic Louis. Tom Story leads the show as a kind of perfectly realized gay everyman. Story has never been more in command of a character as he is with Prior. It’s a bravura performance.
Story isn’t the only actor here who inhabits his role — they all do. Thomas Keegan and Kimberly Gilbert, as the Mormon couple Joe and Harper, strip away all pretense in two climactic scenes where each is leveling with a new lover lover. Keegan gives a hot-blooded, heartbreaking performance as Joe, throwing as much into his passionate realization as Story does with Prior, yet without a sense his character learns from his mistakes or is on track for a happy resolution. That puts him in stark relief with his estranged wife Harper. Like Story, Gilbert has been reason enough to see a show over the past decade, yet she’s more captivating than ever. Her Harper learns from her crises of faith and unrequited love that the rest of us could only hope to approximate.
Prior and Harper are cosmically connected spirits in standout scenes in both plays, but a highlight of Perestroika is the unexpected, heartwarming and bond between Prior and Joe’s mother Hannah, just one of several enchanting roles played by Sarah Marshall. That an AIDS-stricken gay man and a devoutly Mormon woman could come to like one another is the kind of small, hopeful gesture that serves as a nice postscript to the self-hatred and hostility espoused by Roy Cohn (Mitchell Hebert). We do get the satisfaction of seeing Cohn die in his hospital bed right beside Marshall’s marvelously malevolent Ethel Rosenberg. The world becomes a better place without him in it.
Angels in America, Part II: Perestroika runs in rep with Millennium Approaches to Oct. 30 at Round House Theatre, 4545 East-West Highway, Bethesda. Tickets are $55 to $75. Call 240-644-1100 or visit roundhousetheatre.org for tickets and a full schedule of dates.
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