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Angels in America, Part Two Perestroika

Angels in America, Part Two: Perestroika, the sequel to Angels in America, Part One: Millennium Approaches, opens the Arts Club Theatre’s new season at the Stanley Industrial Alliance Stage.

This two-part play is a monumental achievement in American theatre, having won numerous awards, including the Pulitzer Prize for Drama, the Tony Award for Best Play and the Drama Desk Award for Outstanding Play. Tony Kushner’s self-described “Gay Fantasia on National Themes” contributed greatly to moving gay men from the margins to the center of American politics and culture.

Lois Anderson, Damien Atkins, Stephen Jackman-Torkoff
[Lois Anderson, Damien Atkins, Stephen Jackman-Torkoff]

It is 1986 and there is a plague and despair; mostly gay men are dying by the thousands without the imminent hope for a cure. God has abandoned heaven and his angels. Karl Marx and his vision of a new and just society is dead.

The description above makes this play sound depressing, but it isn’t. For a “serious” Broadway play, Angels in America, Part Two: Perestroika is very, very funny, with a strand of dark humour that becomes at times full-bodied comedy.

This is not an easy play to mount due to its subject matter, complexity, length, and the strength of the writing. Kim Collier directs with clarity and vigour a confident and superbly professional acting and production team.

Brian Markinson, Damien Atkins
[Brian Markinson, Damien Atkins]

The centre of Perestroika continues to be Prior Walter, a man dying of AIDS who wrestles with the angel and his illness on the path to redemption and acceptance. Damien Atkins’ portrayal is key to the production and he rises to the occasion.

Atkins inhabits the role of a man dying of AIDS with dignity and unexpected humour, showing both fear and frailty but also, in the end, his determination and hope for the future.

Indeed the performances of all eight actors is noteworthy. Stephen Jackman-Torkoff as Belize, the e-drag queen and nurse, achieves a perfect balance of sardonic, undercutting wit with the gentle practicality of his profession. Belize is the most humane character in the play.

Craig Erickson, Celine Stubel
[Craig Erickson, Celine Stubel]

Craig Erickson, as the conflicted closeted Mormon lawyer Joe Pitt, and Celine Stubel as his tormented wife Harper, are excellent in conveying the agonies of a marriage mired in lies and self-deception.

Ryan Beil is also excellent as Prior’s guilt-ridden and spineless ex-lover Louis, seeking redemption in Part Two for abandoning Prior in Part One.

Gabrielle Rose, Damien Atkins
[Gabrielle Rose, Damien Atkins]

Gabrielle Rose offers a wonderful portrait of Hannah, Joe’s conservative Mormon mom who steps outside her background to aid Prior at a critical time.

In addition she appears as the world’s oldest living Bolshevik, as a rabbi, and as the ghost of Ethel Rosenberg. Also memorable is the work of Lois Anderson as the Angel who literally descents from “heaven” with spreadeagled wings.

Brian Markinson gives a strong rendition of Roy Cohn, the only real historical character (among other roles, he was once Donald Trump’s lawyer).

Stephen Jackman-Torkoff, Craig Erickson, Brian Markinson
[Stephen Jackman-Torkoff, Craig Erickson, Brian Markinson]

Cohn was by all accounts a nasty, evil power broker who remains incorrigible to the end, refusing to accept that he’s gay or that he has AIDS. Without showing a trace of sentimentality, he arouses an uncomfortable but real compassion for Cohn’s agonizing decline.

Ken MacKenzie’s set is simple but powerful. In the background are huge pillars and large steps that somehow reminded me of the Temple of Karnak in Egypt — they were that impressive. But it’s also a practical set, using a simple bed as a vehicle to transform the space between the pillars into an office, a washroom, a bedroom and a hospital room.

Lois Anderson
[Lois Anderson]

John Webber’s lighting really compliments the set and adds immeasurably to the atmosphere, as do Nancy Bryant’s costumes (particularly Prior Walter’s black outfit).

The entire play works to convince us that that forward motion, however painful or alarming, is the only option people have to survive. Life persists and moves forward despite impossible, even unbearable conditions.

Forgiveness, even more so than progress, lies at the heart of the play’s moral vision.

Ryan Beil, Damien Atkins
[Ryan Beil, Damien Atkins]

We are challenged to expand our definition of community to include even those whom we find alien and even despicable. And while prejudice and homophobia still exist, one is reminded how much has changed since Angels in America was written in terms of gay rights, sexual openness and HIV-testing.

Directed by Kim Collier, Angels in America, Part Two: Perestroika continues at the Stanley Industrial Alliance Stage through October 8.

Photos by David Cooper.

About Our Contributor Michael Pigeon

Michael Pigeon

Michael is a long-time Vancouver resident who’s recently returned home after living abroad for over a decade. Michael enjoys reconnecting with Canadian culture through the Greater Vancouver theatre scene and being retired in a city that offers so many opportunities to live a healthy, engaged lifestyle.

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