Like so many of us, Prior Walter, the central character in Tony Kushner's epic, two-part, seven-hour masterpiece "Angels in America," once got a warning from his mother. If friends, lovers, those who aspire to be your spiritual or political leaders, get overwhelmed by the little things in life, then they're going to fall apart on you when the big stuff comes along.
"Angels in America," a play about AIDS-stricken New Yorkers and traumatized Mormons in the 1980s and the greatest American play of the waning years of the 20th century, has singularly expansive themes ranging from hope to hypocrisy, power to pain, American exceptionalism to shameful American acts. And it is a cri de coeur that the personal is always, always political. But even though Kushner was writing a decade before debt swallowed American homes, before the wars of the following decade, before 9/11 cast its pall, the play is perhaps one thing above all else. As the night nurse Belize shrewdly observes: In life, the really big stuff does indeed come along. Usually when your guard is down. And when it does, you always find out the consequences of your previous decisions of trust.
Great productions of "Angels in America," a work that is both an inherently huge and spectacular undertaking and a collection of the most intimate scenes imaginable, master that tricky Kushnerian dichotomy. They offer quiet, truthful revelation of our most private moments, the scenes of love, sex, friendship, agonizing disappointments and hard deaths, the things that maybe one other person sees. And they come with the equally crucial understanding that the raging, coursing, unimaginably awesome universe is made up of nothing but such moments.
This is not such a production. Although it contains three superlative pieces of acting, — a trifecta of truly jaw-dropping performances — Charles Newell's new production of "Angels," which has a set by John Culbert, lights by Keith Parham and costumes by Nan Cibula-Jenkins, struggles at times with the intimate and has a very inconsistent grasp on the epic. This is an exceedingly tough assignment, especially when both "Millennium Approaches" and "Perestroika" are being opened up at once by a shared cast of eight (Saturday's opening presentation, with the necessary breaks, lasted from 3 p.m. to midnight). Still, given how masterfully Newell, an artist capable of extraordinary feats of theatrical daring, staged other works of Kushner, this one, frankly, is something of a disappointment, albeit greatly mitigated by an intensely moving performance from Rob Lindley as AIDS patient Prior, a series of thrilling characterizations from Hollis Resnik, who plays Hannah Pitt and others, and by Larry Yando twisting himself into the greatest Roy Cohn of the many I've seen.
Speaking generally, one has the sense that Newell wanted to simplify the show — the dominant image is a hospital bed made up of black, rehearsal-type blocks — but failed to fully see that "Angels in America" is not some overwrought opus that can be re-imagined in the same way that one might cut back, say, "Showboat." In "Angels," the dichotomy between the intimate and the colossal is already baked into the text. The glorious and the terrifying must explode all over the simple, just as they do in our lives.
Yet the necessary sweep mostly eludes a production that has not figured out a cohesive visual metaphor and ends up sticking too many of its scenes in little, chopped-up boxes — way upstage and in an isolated zone of floating squares that removes us from many crucial human moments. When it comes to simplicity or how the scenes are structured and created, the rules of engagement are not consistently applied. Actor movement in the house often distracts. Most egregiously, the Angel, played by Mary Beth Fisher, does not crash through any ceiling, metaphoric or literal. She merely walks up in a blackout, hooks on a couple of wires with the help of actors who otherwise are not involved with the mechanics of their environment and dangles there awkwardly, in a moment better suited to a cut-rate Peter Pan than a harbinger of revelation.
Certainly, Court's theater has some physical limitations. But over the last decade, Chicago storefronts with a small percentage of this budget or space have made the Angel's arrival breathtaking. All her visits must inspire awe; she is an angel, for goodness' sake. What's missing here are the right revelations.
There is nothing missing from Yando's Cohn. In a performance that surely is the zenith of this actor's distinguished Chicago career, he takes the audience on a riveting and vicarious journey as a man who despises weakness and impotence but succumbs to an invader in his body that turns him into his own negation. How does Yando do this? First, he leans his whole self into Roy's full-throated sense of humor, making him a most lovable devil. But most of all, Yando has some uncommon insights into what happens to men staring death in the face. Maybe it's all those years he played Scrooge. In some ways, the ghost of Ethel Rosenberg (Resnik) is not so different from an undigested, Dickensian bit of beef.
Not all the scenes offer such presents or presence. Eddie Bennett certainly captures the emotional mess that is Louis — a lover of a man with AIDS, but a lover who sees the rough times coming and takes a hike. But he fails to show us the Louis with whom Prior must once have fallen in love. In the best "Angels" productions, you see yourself in Louis; you wonder how closely you'll stick around when your loved ones face such trials. Geoff Packard's Joe Pitt gets the sorrow of his man, the way he has succumbed to expectations, but not always the present-tense struggles. And that makes the scenes with Heidi Kettenring's honest, if not always fragile, Harper less than they could be. As Belize, the only secure and fully self-aware character of them all, Michael Pogue is much of the way there, although his Belize is more florid than a truth-teller need be.
Still, there are moments when all these problems fall away. When Lindley — looking like a man who doesn't know if he stared into the jaws of hell or the mouth of heaven but knows that the Angel changed him for good — reminds us that that we live "beyond hope" and that we are all "fabulous creatures" even when our regrets, failings and neuroses bring us down, you feel Kushner's humanism, not to mention the inherent beauty of optimism from a day spent in the company of such a feat of playwriting, radiating from the stage like sunlight.
When: Through June 3 (Parts 1 and 2 are in rotating repertory; call for schedule)
Where: Court Theatre, 5535 S. Ellis Ave.
Running time: Part 1: 3 hours, 10 minutes; Part 2: 3 hours, 50 minutes
Tickets: $45-$65 (each part) at 773-753-4472 or courttheatre.org