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Charles Lynn Frost remembers watching "Angels in America" years ago back then, he was a practicing Mormon sitting next to his wife.
"At both intermissions I said, 'I have to go to the bathroom,' but really I went out on the streets and took deep breaths of air," Frost said, adding that he felt as if someone had been looking into his life and written a play about him. "It was frighting. Seeing the play was torturous for me but also magnificent."
Playwright Tony Kushner's "Angels" is a two-part epic which draws upon such themes as love, politics in the '80s, AIDS, Mormons, Jews and gay liberation. At the story's center are two couples, a gay one and one nominally heterosexual, whose lives cross throughout the drama.
Watching the stage play, Frost had found a drama that spoke to his life experience. He was haunted by the character of Joe Pitt, a Mormon man struggling to repress his homosexuality. As the actor prepares to take on the role of Roy Cohn in Salt Lake Acting Company's season-opening production of "Angels," he looks back at the memory and is happy to be in a different place living as an openly gay man.
The play also has personal significance for actor Alexis Baigue, who will be performing as Louis Ironson, "a neurotic Jewish leftist and legal cleric" who decides he can no longer be with his AIDS-stricken lover, Prior Walter.
Baigue had heard news about the play on TV when he saw SLAC's audition notice for its first production of "Angels " in 1995 and tried out for a part. As a 19-year-old gay Mormon living in West Jordan, he told himself he would find the answers he was looking for if only he could see or read "Angels."
"It's sort of a background play for my life," Baigue said. "It's a sacred text. It's so rich that even reading it now moves me to tears."
In that first audition, he tried out for the role of Louis but it was really Joe Pitt with whom he identified. "Now I'm a little more like the character I play, Louis," Baigue said. "He accepts who he is and embraces his sexuality and his place in the world."
The company chose to revive "Angels" as the opener for its 40th-anniversary season, and will perform the second part of the play, "Perestroika,"as a staged reading in November.
The Pulitzer and Tony award-winning play is a landmark in American theater, said director Keven Myhre, and one of the great plays of the 20th century. SLAC chose to revive the play because of the way the story draws upon many genres of theater, which is similar to the company's mission of producing contemporary theater works.
Fifteen years later, the play speaks the same language but with a different perspective, he said. "While remaining true to the play, this production can't be done again the way it was done initially," Myhre said. "The passage of time does give a different reflection upon 1985 in 2010, just as it had a different point of view from 1995 looking back to 1985."
Coincidentally, the play is having an off-Broadway revival this month with an extended run through February.
Cynthia Fleming, the company's executive producer, remembers living in New York City in the midst of the AIDS epidemic and watching friends die. "But I think I'm no different than any single audience member who will see this play," she said. "And that is the power of this play that everyone goes, 'This is a play about me.' "
Actor Christy Summerhays, who plays Harper Pitt, sees one of the larger themes of the play as identity. Each of the characters is in a journey of his or her own to figure out who they are. "That's common, that's the human experience," Summerhays said. "Every person who comes can relate because of our similarities."
Salt Lake Acting Company presents "Angels in America" by Tony Kushner.
Part 1: Millennium Approaches • Previews on Wednesday and Thursday, Oct. 6-7, at 7:30 p.m. Plays Wednesdays through Fridays, 7:30 p.m., and Sundays, 2 and 7 p.m. through Oct. 31.
Part 2: Perestroika • Staged readings Nov. 5-7.
Where • SLAC, 168 W. 500 North, Salt Lake City
Tickets • $15-$41, depending on performance. Discounts available for students, 30 and younger, and groups of 10 or more. Available at 801-363-SLAC (7522), at http://www.saltlakeactingcompany.org or at the box office.