When Tony Kushner’s Angels in America: A Gay Fantasia on National Themes premiered in 1991, it won a smattering of awards for its intense exploration of pressing, contemporary topics. A bit more than a quarter century later, the social issues and themes explored in the play are ever-relevant, and as the first show in their 2017-18 season, Ithaca College presents the first part of the play, Millennium Approaches, directed by Robert Moss.
Angels in America is set in late 1985 in Manhattan, and follows a large cast—a gay couple, Prior Walter (Will Thames) and Louis Ironson (Josh Wilde); a Mormon couple, Joe (Ryan Ballard) and Harper Pitt (Steph Seiden); and Joe’s mentor Roy Cohn (Keenan Buckley), a lawyer with extremely questionable ethics (based on the real-life Roy Cohn). Their stories and lives overlap and intersect in weird and sometimes fantastical ways as the story moves through experiences of the AIDS crisis, homophobia, racism, and political tension and corruption. As revelations of illness and secrets come about, relationships deteriorate and an overwhelming fear of the future seems to cripple the characters.
The crew at Ithaca College did an exceptional job. The cast — please excuse the cliché — blew me away. The storyline between Prior and Louis stood out, in part because it’s just so emotionally dramatic: Prior is in many ways the leading figure of the show, and Thames’s performance (which I’d like to give special shout-out to) was raw, real and incredible to watch; Wilde’s Louis was so well-done I couldn’t tell whether I sympathized with him or just flat-out hated him. But that’s not to understate the other players in the story: the various ghosts add a really enjoyable dash of fun, Buckley’s Roy Cohn is spectacularly easy to pity and hate, and Joe and Harper’s story seems inherently quieter at first, but Ballard and Seiden really shine as the layers get pulled back and secrets burst.
Fantasy is woven in through magical realism, and although Angels in America a serious exploration of several issues, the dialogue is funny and made the audience burst in laughter several times, with sassy ghostly apparitions calling hospitals and plenty of dry self-derogatory humor. The costumes and set (by Lauren Brandt, Costume Designer; Shivanna Sookanan, Scenic Designer; Sean Woods, Sound Designer; Breana McGlockling, Lighting Designer) are colorful, fun and, as it always is with productions at Ithaca College, very aesthetically pleasing. Several pieces of the play from the coordination of the characters and set to the clever use of the stage layout come together for a dynamic and intimate peek into the lives of the characters.
But most of all, Angels in America is engaging because the stories in it matter now. Harper’s obvious anxiety and fear, I think, exemplify it best: her revelations about Joe scare her and render him unfamiliar; and at some point, she gasps in horror at how soon the new millennium will be approaching — and at the uncertainty that comes with this turning point.
And that new millennium has now arrived; we’re now almost a fifth of the way through. But the incessant fear of uncertainty as well as the issues of (in)tolerance and varying identities that crackle in Kushner’s play haven’t been resolved, nor have they, even remotely, relented in intensity. Rather, we’re still making these revelations about how much we don’t know about our society, others, the future and our own personal selves and worlds — something made painfully clear in the last few years.
Angels in America is a deeply emotional, complicated and intense story, but one that should be read, seen and heard — Ithaca College Theatre’s performance does not disappoint and makes you wish there was a Part 2. In the exploration of sex, love and religion during a particularly fraught era, the cast and crew at Ithaca College present an urgent but relatable story where the characters are confused and trying to navigate the future. And as I thoroughly procrastinated doing any thinking about my own future, it was an evening very well-spent.
Angels in America, Part 1: Millennium Approaches runs October 5-7 and 10-13 at 8PM, as well as October 7 and 8 at 2PM, at the Dillingham Center at Ithaca College.
Catherine Hwang is a senior in the College of Arts and Sciences. She can be reached at [email protected].