Rep opens season with breathtaking production of ‘Angels in America’

Barrett Foa and Ben Cherry in The Rep’s production of ‘Angels in America.’ Photo by Peter Wochniak.

BY ROBERT A. COHN, Editor-in-Chief Emeritus

Hana S. Sharif has launched her first season as artistic director of the Repertory Theatre of St. Louis with a breathtaking production of Tony Kushner’s magnum opus, “Angels in America.” That the 25-year-old play still resonates today is a credit not only to Kushner’s Pulitzer Prize and Tony-winning masterpiece, but also to the director and actors who imbue the Rep’s production with humor, humanity and pathos. 

The first part of the play, “Millennium Approaches,” takes place at the height of the AIDS crisis when this “plague” was ravaging mostly the male gay community, which was looked down upon by the so-called Moral Majority of Evangelical Christians that helped put President Ronald Reagan in office and keep him there for eight long years.

Under the skilled direction of Tony Speciale, the seven characters who play multiple parts in “Angels” transcend their earthly day-to-day existence to stare death in the face. Characters move between reality and fantasy so flawlessly that “Angels” not only is larger than life: it is larger than death.

At the center of the story, which unfolds over 3½ hours (with two intermissions) is a 30-year-old man dying of AIDS; his name is Prior Walter, and he is a descendant of an elitist American family. 

Barett Foa (of TV’s “NCIS: Los Angeles”) is excellent in the challenging role of Prior Walter, who is visited by two of his blue blood ancestors as he thrashes about in his drug-induced dream-state. Perhaps this character’s “distinguished” ancestry is intended to show that the AIDS epidemic did not respect differences of class and wealth.

Prior’s boyfriend, Louis Ironson (Ben Cherry) continues to love his partner but does not have the stomach or compassion to deal with the messier symptoms of the disease and leaves Prior to fend for himself at the very time he needed his lover the most.

After Prior confides his woes to nurse Belize (David Ryan Smith), the shocking image of the Angel (Gina Daniels) haunts him as she instructs, “The Great Work Begins.”  The message appears to be that indifference, not hate, is the opposite of love.

Also key to the story is another couple: conflicted Mormon attorney Joe Pitt (Jason Speters), who himself is a closeted gay man, and his agorophobic wife Harper (Valeri Mudek), a self-admitted Valium addict. Joe has become a protege of the notorious Roy Cohn (Peter Frechette), the infamous lawyer/fixer for Joseph McCarthy and later Donald Trump. Pitt’s Mormon faith and Cohn’s Judaism prove to cause more harm than good to those caught in the web of AIDS and deception. 

The play opens with a wooden casket with a star of David carved on it lid and a yahrzeit candle nearby as a pathetically inept rabbi (Meredith Baxter of “Family Ties” fame) mumbles some nonsense.  For once it would be nice to see a compassionate and effective depiction of a rabbi on stage or screen.

Frechette is outstanding in the complex role of sleazy Roy Cohn, who abused his own brilliance as an attorney to railroad Julius and Ethel Rosenberg to the electric chair. The actor manages to draw some sympathy to the otherwise loathsome real-life character.  

Adding soul to the mix, too, is Baxter, who as Joe’s mother Hannah finds herself adrift once her son admits his secret to her. 

A shout out to the production team, especially Lighting Designer Xavier Price, for their extremely effective depicting of major scenes, such as Harper’s longed for escape to Antarctica.

Hovering above it all is the Angel of Kushner’s title. Is she the Angel of Death? The Messenger to answer all the questions raised by the AIDS crisis?  Is she on stage to remind us that we must pay attention to crises like epidemics caused by viruses or violence? 

Or is she the Angel with whom Jacob wrestled and would not released until he blessed her? The appearance of the ghost of Ethel Rosenberg as a character on stage offers some of the most emotionally powerful and Jewishly-relevant moments on stage. It is a physical and emotional challenge to sit through both parts of “Angels in America,” but it offers so much food for thought that it is more than worth doing.

Yes, “Angels in America” is set in an era that seems long ago.  But it is a play that should be seen afresh especially in these bitterly divisive and confusing times of today.

‘Angels in America’

Where: Mainstage, Repertory Theatre, 130 Edgar Road

When: Through Oct. 6 (Part I and Part II in repertory) 

How Much: $20-$97.50 (discounted if buying tickets for Parts I and II)

More Info:  314-968-4925