Sunday, July 21, 2013

Sunday Feature: Angels in America, an appreciation by Christian Baines

Raquel Duffy and Damien Atkins; photo by Cylla von Tiedemann

Why over 20 years on, Angels still has wings.
by Christian Baines

Angels in America seems to have become the go-to play in talking about so many benchmarks. A turning point for Gay theatre. A turning point for the way the AIDS epidemic could be depicted in entertainment. 

Not forgetting the endless cracks about the show’s sheer length. No, really. When considering taking in Angels, “I’m not doing anything that weekend” had better mean “I’m not doing ANYTHING that weekend.” Saturday for the 6+ hour play, and Sunday to recover.

Its tagline ‘A Gay Fantasia on National Themes’ speaks not only to Tony Kushner’s love of long, needlessly drawn out titles (Anyone try to spit out ‘The Intelligent Homosexual’s Guide to Capitalism and Socialism with a Key to the Scriptures’ at TKTS?), but to the incredible scope of the work itself. Gay theatre, even addressing AIDS, was nothing new to Broadway audiences in 1991 – La Cage aux Folles and Falsettos had both come before, collecting a nice fistful of Tony Awards between them. 

Angels director,
Albert Schultz
But through some of the most thoughtfully developed and complex characters written for stage in recent memory, Kushner was able to paint a much broader range of the Gay community’s experience for his mainstream audience. Only Amistead Maupin’s Tales of the City – tucked at the time into the relative intellectual safety of the written word and buoyed by San Francisco romanticism – came close.

My first read of Kushner’s play came after being given a scene from a different play to workshop, then carefully approaching my acting teacher with a very polite and diplomatic variation of ‘WTF is this?’ (Suffice to say, with this approach to quality control, my acting career was not long for this world!) She loaned me her copy of Angels – which I seized upon and more or less devoured in one sitting. Charged with finding two new monologues to perform, I now found myself with a new dilemma. 

Which ones? Befuddlement ensued while I read the play again and savoured the sheer variety and depth in each of Kushner’s characters. I was even considering taking a crack at Harper there, for a bit (Ahem. No Christian, you will not).

I eventually chose two pivotal moments for Prior Walter, the play’s AIDS-afflicted protagonist. And at the risk of sounding insensitive or even pretentious, my getting to know this person was probably the closest I’d ever come to understanding the sheer terror that surrounded this disease and what it meant both to afflicted individuals, those close to them, and to the Gay community at large – particularly in 1985, the year of the play’s setting. I was 3. My earliest knowledge of AIDS was gleaned from surprisingly educational TV snippets in the early 90’s, loaded with facts that had clearly eluded any adult in my life who might have been able to answer questions.

How does a story about this still resonate in 2013, even with audiences who never lived through this part of history? Why is it still necessary? The answer to that was sharply realized for me on the day of performance when a fellow student in that course took one look at my makeup and joked that I must have gone out and gotten AIDS for the part.

Awkward. But also highly illustrative of why these plays are still relevant. Even if the prognosis for HIV sufferers has improved dramatically, stigma and ignorance remains a big problem.

Part of what continues to impress me about Angels however, is that it wasn’t enough for Kushner to do an AIDS drama. In fact, Angels in America might have been titled ‘Everything you ever wanted to know about homosexuality and you, but were too scared to ask.’ Emphasis on the ‘and you’. Kushner paints an incredible portrait of five Gay men leading lives that could not be more different. In and out of the closet, Jewish, Mormon, right-wing, left-wing, drag-queen, HIV positive, HIV negative dealing with a positive partner, married… the elegance with which so many aspects of Gay experience are handled is staggering. Many ‘Gay’ plays at the time took on one, perhaps two of these ideas at most (and still do).

Kushner applies the same level of care, depth and complexity to his heterosexual characters as well. Perhaps the play’s most interesting character is one relatively untouched by the AIDS epidemic. Harper Pitt struggles with drug addiction, a crisis of faith and the pain of her closeted husband’s infidelity – all while bouncing in and out of Prior’s heavenly visitations, as you do. It would have been so easy for Kushner to follow cliché and paint Harper as some kind of bitter, homophobic spurned wife. Instead, her story lies in the eventual finding of her wings, escaping from under the weight of her doomed marriage with a sense of self intact.

Oops. Spoiler? Not so much. 

For the uninitiated, this quality is exactly what makes this 6+ hour marathon of a play so eminently watchable (and re-watchable). It’s simply a beautiful and ultimately optimistic piece of work that takes its audience on an incredible journey through politics, social crisis, personal crisis, the ties of family (most notably the family we create for ourselves) and the celestial. Its villains range from AIDS to Republicans to the very idea of God itself. But more than any of these, the enemy is apathy and the unwillingness to seize life and its value.

And for all the themes he touches on, could Kushner have delivered a more timeless message than that?

Angels in America, Part I (Millennium Approaches) and Angels in America, Part II (Perestroika) play at the Young Centre for the Performing Arts in Toronto. For tickets visit

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