A Stunning 'Angels in America' At The Ringwald

By Martin F. Kohn

The millennium Tony Kushner refers to in "Angels in America, Part 1: Millennium Approaches" is the one we're living in now, not the one that will approach in 900-and-something years.

Kushner may have been looking ahead - the play opened on Broadway in 1993 - but here we are looking back, as The Ringwald brings us its production of Kushner's play. (Although it's Part 1, "Angels" is a play unto itself.)

Like the novel "1984" or the film "2001: A Space Odyssey," "Angels" transcends its title's implied chronological limitations. Or maybe not, but Joe Bailey's beautiful and intense Ringwald staging would overcome any potential shortcomings. The play is intensely political and philosophical, but it's also about loyalty, devotion, commitment, denial, fear, religion, power, corruption. In other words, it's about being human.

Its three main stories are separate but connected. In one, Joe Pitt is an up-and-coming lawyer who is Republican, Mormon and a closeted (even to himself) gay man, although his wife, Harper, strongly suspects. Louis Ironson, an employee at the law firm, is in a committed relationship with another man, Prior Walter; Prior has AIDS and Louis can't face it.

The third story involves a fictionalized real person, lawyer Roy Cohn (1927-1986), a right-wing wheeler-dealer with friends in very high places. A mentor to Joe Pitt, Cohn is gay and has AIDS, but won't admit it because in his mind homosexuals are weak; angrily, he calls himself "a heterosexual man who fucks around with guys."

In what may be the best performance of the theater season, Travis Reiff is astonishing as the repellant Cohn, delivering one of the most vivid portrayals of self-loathing ever seen. He bullies, he bellows, he coddles, he wheedles and maintains a solid wall of denial even at the brink of death.

Excellent, too, are Matthew Turner Shelton, as Louis, and Bailey Boudreau as the sorely afflicted Prior. Shelton is also sorely afflicted, not physically but by his own ambivalence: He knows he should stay with prior, but is physically repulsed by Prior's illness. "You can love someone and fail them" he says. Does doing the wrong thing but feeling guilty about it make it less wrong? Shelton conveys that well, and Boudreau's Prior is deserving of great sympathy, but he's never pitiful.

Brenton Herwat as Joe Pitt and Meredith Deighton as Harper Pitt also play well off each other. Harper is so upset by her husband's probable homosexuality that she retreats into a world of imaginary friends and displaces her worry into concern about holes in the ozone layer. Deighton captures the ethereal quality of Harper's flights of fancy. Herwat makes Joe the character the audience most hopes will figure himself out.

This is a very long play, but as with the similarly lengthy "Long Day's Journey Into Night" or "Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?" anything less would be a disservice.

REVIEW:

'Angels in America, Part 1: Millennium Approaches'

The Ringwald Theatre, 22742 Woodward Ave., Ferndale. 8 p.m. Friday, Saturday & Monday, and 3 p.m. Sunday through March 10. 3 hours, 20 minutes. $10-20. 248-545-5545. http://www.theringwald.com

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