Past Reviews

Regional Reviews: San Diego

Angels in America, Part One: Millennium Approaches
Cygnet Theatre
Review by David Dixon | Season Schedule

Also see Bill's review of Diana and David's review of Gabriel

Alex Bodine and Wil Bethmann
Photo by Daren Scott
An impressive aspect about Tony Kushner's Angels in America: A Gay Fantasia on National Themes is how well the show has aged over the past few decades. Originally produced in in the early 1990s, the two-part play is set between 1985 and 1990, and deals with many of the issues affecting people in New York City. Topics such as AIDS, repressed homosexuality, drug addiction, and certain types of religious beliefs still impact lives today. Part One: Millennium Approaches is now playing at the Cygnet Theatre and Part Two: Perestroika will officially open on Sunday, March 24th, in Old Town. Each part is a long evening, and Artistic Director Sean Murray and a wonderful ensemble keep theatregoers engaged throughout the three and a half-hour evening in this presentation of Millennium Approaches.

Several of the primary characters intersect at different points in the drama. An openly gay man, Prior Walter (Alex Bodine), reveals to his Jewish boyfriend, Louis Ironson (Wil Bethmann), that he is suffering from AIDS and, while Louis tries to be loyal to his partner, it's clear that he doesn't know how to handle the grim news. Elsewhere, a Mormon Republican clerk, Joe Pitt (Connor Sullivan), becomes close with Roy Cohn (James Newcomb), the lawyer known for working with Senator Joseph McCarthy. Cohn offers Joe a major position in Washington D.C. and, while Joe would love to take the job, he worries that his valium-addicted antisocial wife Harper (Rachael VanWormer) won't want to move to another state. Joe and Cohn are secretly gay and their inability to accept this begins to negatively affect their lives.

Kushner tackles serious and ambitious topics ranging from the Bible and death to politics and homosexuality. In showing how these issues affect his characters, he makes us confront our own stances on these themes. The playwright deftly combines elements of magical realism and historical fiction, weaving them in with more realistic and current moments. These sequences create a mysterious and optimistic tone that builds through all three acts of the play. Despite the serious topics and the intense and grim exchanges, the play is also quite witty, and Murray's interpretation highlights this.

Many sequences take place in two different locations, and Murray stages them well, smartly finding parallels in the various situations. He shifts through the various narratives swiftly, and doesn't shortchange any of the major storylines. His crewmembers contribute positively to both the realistic and fantastical elements. Bonnie Durben's props on Andrew Hull's minimalistic set and Shirley Pierson's costumes provide a believable depiction of 1980s Manhattan, and Blake McCarty's projections are used effectively in the introductions to each act. Steven Leffue's audio includes dance music and well-known songs such as "Get Happy" and "Moon River," and also incorporates, with the help of performer Debra Wanger and a microphone, an angelic voice that speaks to Walter. The performers excel in both the authentic and magical aspects of the plot.

Most of the cast play several roles, including that of a major character (Reynolds, Sullivan and Wanger each play at least three roles). All give passionate performances with emotions ranging from anger and sadness to joy. Just when one thinks that a particular performer is the standout of the cast, another artist delivers a speech or has a moment that leaves just as big of an impression. Each ensemble member brings out the personality of their characters, something that is important for such a lengthy play. Their acting and Murray's focused direction keep the night from feeling overlong and excessively lengthy.

Murray's production does what any production of part one of Kushner's work should do, which is to create a powerful evening of entertainment that also leaves audiences excited to see more. In other words, it's a must-see presentation of this chapter of Kushner's masterpiece.

Angels in America, Part One: Millennium Approaches, through April 20, 2019, at Cygnet Theatre, 4040 Twiggs St, San Diego CA. Performances are Sundays through Saturdays. Tickets start at $25.00 and can be purchased online at or by phone at 619-337-1525.