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Seattle by David-Edward Hughes

Earnest Angels in America Soars
and Occasionally Stumbles

Intiman Theatre Festival

Also see David's review of A Chorus Line

Adam Standley (in bed) Timothy McCuen Piggee
Two decades since it was last produced in Seattle by Intiman Theatre, Tony Kushner's epically brilliant, much lauded and awarded play(s) Angels in America Part I: Millennium Approaches and Part II: Perestroika returns to what is now the Cornish Playhouse as the focal event in this summer's Intiman Theatre Festival. Over the ensuing years the plays have aged remarkably well, and audiences who missed seeing the show in Seattle, Broadway or elsewhere have had the opportunity to experience the piece via HBO's vivid, faithful and star-studded (Meryl Streep, Al Pacino, and Emma Thompson to name a few in the cast) adaptation. Intiman Festival's artistic director Andrew Russell has gathered a talented cast and design team and the net result is a staging that deserves, if not quite demands, to be seen.

So dense and detailed is the plot of these two plays, it seems best (and the easiest way to sidestep possible spoilers) to primarily describe the central characters. There are two troubled couples, one gay, one straight: "word processor" Louis Ironson and his flamboyant lover Prior Walter; and Mormon lawyer Joe Pitt and his disturbed wife Harper. After the funeral of Louis's grandmother, Prior tells Louis that he has contracted AIDS, and Louis panics. He tries to care for Prior but soon realizes he cannot stand the strain and fear. Meanwhile, Joe is offered a job in the Justice Department by Roy Cohn, his right-wing, bigoted mentor and friend. But Harper, who is addicted to Valium and suffers anxiety and hallucinations, does not want to move to Washington. Prior, who is grappling with his AIDS and unsure what is real and what is drug induced slowly becomes convinced he is being used as a vessel for angelic forces, indeed viewed as a prophet. Closeted Joe stumbles into a relationship with Louis, while Harper descends further into a dream world, ultimately leading her mother-in law to come from Utah to New York to try to lead support. Roy Cohn conceals his own AIDS diagnosis as cancer, and is haunted by the specter of Ethel Rosenberg, a key victim in Roy's real-life support of the McCarthy witch hunts. Part I concludes with some serious bells and whistles (applause to lighting designer Robert Aguilar and costumer Mark Mitchell) and the spectacular arrival of the angel sent to guide Prior on his path.

So much character establishment goes on in Part 1 that Part 2 is perhaps the more satisfying, and lengthier piece. No new major characters are thrown into the mix, but certainly Ethel's ghost and Joe's mother are more in the forefront, while the key roles of Prior and Roy offer tour-de-force opportunities for the actors playing them. There are surprises, some big laughs, and much to ponder, and one comes to the realization we have not seen an American drama, with the possible exception of Kushner's own Homebody/Kabul, that is as ambitious or successful in illuminating a devastating period in human history since Angels first took flight in the '90s.

In a solid ensemble there are clear standouts. Adam Standley navigates the tricky character arc of Prior with brash confidence, humor and empathy, taking the character from quippy, bitchy queen to a passionate and wise survivor who knows that miracles may only last by squeezing the most out of what they provide one day at a time. Timothy McCuen Piggee is at his astonishing best as the sassily sarcastic yet soulful Belize, offering good counsel to friends and taking no nonsense from his tyrannical and increasingly loopy patient Cohn. Anne Allgood, in addition to acing cameo roles such as an elderly male Rabbi, sensitively crafts the journey of Joe's devout Mormon mother Hannah Pitt from stoic to impassioned receptacle of life-altering experiences, and her Ethel Rosenberg is a brilliant fever-dream presence that certainly proves a match for Roy Cohn. Marya Sea Kaminski gives a rousing account of the sometimes not so nice Angel, and plays well with both Standley and Allgood in some, shall we say intense scenes.

As Roy Cohn, Charles Leggett seemed rather too tame a presence as the cantankerous old lion of a politico in Millennium Approaches yet in the opening night performance of Perestroika two weeks later he raged magnificently as the dying but not down yet hospital bound Cohn, going for the physical and emotional anguish with brio, and against all odds making us care for the man just a little bit. It is in these latter scenes with Cohn that Ty Boise as Joe Pitt, whom Cohn sees as a son and heir apparent, finds his surest grip on what I feel is the sketchiest of Kushner's characters. Quinn Franzen gives a solid but unremarkable account of the needy and somewhat nebbishy character of Louis Ironson. And finally, as the fragile and floundering Harper Pitt, Alex Highsmith settles into the role from about the mid-point of Millennium and hits some comic high points in her interplay with Piggee's phantasmagorical Jamaican travel agent in her Antarctica fantasy.

Director Russell has found the right pacing to keep two lengthy plays feeling as though they were flying by. His decision to go with scenic designer Jennifer Zeyl's stark but no frills Judicial Building scenic plot damages our ability to give in to the more fantastic elements of the journey as they are right in our view. But small failings aside, Angels in America still ends up being a helluva ride, pushed skyward by the brilliance of its playwright's talents.

Angels in America, an Intiman Theatre production at Cornish Playhouse, runs through September 21, 2014, at Seattle Center; Call 206-441-7178 or visit for ticketing and individual performance dates/times.

Photo: Chris Bennion

- David Edward Hughes

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