The Rosenberg Trial, the McCarthy Hearings, the Lavender Scare, the Rise of Donald J. Trump — countless miles of bitter road bend and twist back to the late Roy Cohn. Then, there was the plague that drove right through him.
Cohn, a gay Jew who spent his life shaming, demonizing, and harassing other gays and Jews, went to his grave trying to hide his shame that he was dying of AIDS — a karmic twist of fate that Tony Kushner’s towering Angels in America, Part One: Millennium Approaches (★★★★☆) elaborates into drama of operatic proportions.
In nearly every regard, János Szász’s searing new in-the-round production at Arena Stage is pitched to meet the Pulitzer-winning play’s heightened scale of ambition and emotion.
We can start with Edward Gero’s electrifying performance as Cohn. The actor, renowned for his portrayal of equally reviled and revered Justice Antonin Scalia in multiple runs of The Originalist, fearlessly embodies fading New York fixer Cohn in all his brazen ruthlessness.
Frothing with rage as he fends off a case for his disbarment and tries to spin the fake story that he’s dying of liver cancer, Cohn also seeks to manipulate lawyer protégé Joe Pitt (John Austin) into taking a Justice Department position in Washington, purely for Cohn’s own benefit.
The man was a living symbol of lying and corruption in his own time, and in Millennium Approaches, he gets to stand in for an entire era’s corruption, cruelty, and neglect, a personification of the harm caused by Cohn’s friends Ron and Nancy Reagan choosing to ignore the HIV/AIDS crisis devastating the population.
Szász’s vision of gaudy Reagan ’80s opulence is reflected in the many golden chandeliers set designer Maruti Evans has hung over the Fichandler Stage, each one wrapped in a sheet of clinical plastic.
The same plastic covers the entire ceiling, a sign there will be blood — but it won’t sully the chandeliers. Blood is spilt by those far below suffering with the disease, gay men mostly, who don’t wield the power of a Roy Cohn to access experimental drugs and treatments.
Down there in the nitty gritty is where we find Prior Walter, beautifully played by Nick Westrate, showing his first KS lesion to lover Louis, rendered in a movingly honest turn by Michael Kevin Darnall.
At the time, there’s only a hint of the alarm that soon will consume Prior, and send Louis reeling out of their relationship, and perhaps into the arms of Joe Pitt, whose sexual confusion Austin pitches towards over-the-top.
Their stories intertwine with those of Joe’s drug-addled wife Harper (Deborah Ann Woll, captivating), Joe’s concerned mother Hannah (Susan Rome, aces in multiple roles), Prior’s ex and nurse Belize (Justin Weaks), and dream visitations from Ethel Rosenberg (Rome), two prior Prior’s (Austin and Gero), a ’70s pimp-styled Mr. Lies (Weaks, making the best of that), and an Angel from heaven (an ethereal Billie Krishawn).
The broad tapestry unfolds throughout the auditorium. Prior’s hospital bed rises up from beneath the stage, the Angel descends from atop the stairs, Cohn presides over a golden palace room ringed with brass candelabras, and Szász stages all the action on a floor of sand.
What starts as a zen garden, calmly raked into orderly grooves by the Angel, is stomped and danced and stepped and trounced into a sprawling, unruly pit by the end.
Throughout the show, more sand rains down through the plastic, dousing Prior and Louis and Joe and Harper. Time is always running out on them, on all of us. There are urgent lessons to be learned, and powerful people who don’t want us to learn them. Resistance means paying attention, and in this Angels in America, attention is dearly paid.
Angels in America, Part One: Millennium Approaches runs through April 23 at Arena Stage, 1101 6th St. SW. Tickets are $76 to $95. Call 202-488-3300, or visit www.arenastage.org.
Angels in America, Part Two: Perestroika will be presented as a free, one-night-only reading on Monday, April 17, 7 p.m. in the Arlene and Robert Kogod Cradle. Free reservation details TBA. Visit www.arenastage.org.
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