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In 1995, Salt Lake Acting Company was among the first regional theaters to stage Tony Kushner's monumental, multiple-prize-winning "Angels in America." To celebrate its 40th anniversary, the company is reprising the first part, "Millennium Approaches," followed in November by a staged reading of "Perestroika," the second part. In most ways, this production is as powerful and satisfying as the original, although it has a few lapses.
Twenty years after its creation, "Angels" remains one of the most significant plays to emerge from the 20th century, the definitive portrait of America in the 1980s "the melting pot where nothing melted" revealing how where we've gotten to evolved from where we've been. Its characters are recognizable American types: a Jew, a WASP and a Mormon; black and white; gay and straight; a power broker and a visionary; eastern urban and western wholesome; sophisticated and naïve. They are, as Louis says, "children of the new morning ... selfish and greedy and loveless and blind."
Yet each is a unique, fully drawn individual, and relationships the ones that work and the ones that don't are at the heart of "Angels": father and mother to son, husband to wife, lover to lover. All the characters, as Louis says, are searching to "separate what we owe to ourselves and what we owe to love."
But the world of "Angels" is even deeper and richer. Kushner shatters every theatrical convention to take us to a realm above and beyond: where the past coexists with the present, the dead with the living, the imaginary with the real; a place where our dreams and visions connect us in unfathomable ways. Watching the play is like being caught inside a kaleidoscope with bright shards of insights and revelations whirling about you.
SLAC's production starts slowly but gains momentum in acts two and three. Joe's phone call to his mother and the counterpointing of the relationships between Louis and Prior and Joe and Harper work particularly well, as does the scene between Louis and Belize, where Alexis Baigue eloquently handles Louis' motormouth monologue. And Prior's scenes with his intrusive ancestors are very funny, thanks to Alexander Bala and Charles Lynn Frost's flamboyant cameos.
Most of the actors seem comfortable with their characters. Christy Summerhays subtly exposes the pain and perceptiveness beneath Harper's emotional fragility, and Baigue's Louis is a nice mix of intellectual arrogance and guilty sensitivity. As Prior, Lucas Bybee switches easily from sarcasm and self-knowledge to fear of what lies ahead, and Sean Carter's Belize deftly balances cattiness and compassion. But Frost's Roy Cohn isn't forceful or abrasive enough; his Roy whines instead of roars. And Alexander Bala's Joe falls apart too early; we never see the confidence and reserve that have brought him to where he is politically. Colleen Baum and Nell Gwynn do a fine job differentiating the range of characters they play.
Keven Myhre's direction is agile and assured, but his set design of a locker room full of luggage is perplexing. You have to read the program notes to understand it, and it gives the play a claustrophobic, oppressive feel that doesn't work. James Craig's atmospheric area lighting keeps attention firmly focused on the action, and the music of Cynthia Rees' sound design smoothly bridges scenes.
In its panoramic portrait of America's recent past, "Angels in America" offers a penultimate theatrical experience. Even if you've seen it before, revisiting it only reaffirms its greatness.
'Angels in America'
P Bottom line • Salt Lake Acting Company's production of "Millennium Approaches" has some uneven moments, but still powerfully captures both the intimacy and grandeur of Tony Kushner's vision.
When • Reviewed on Friday; Wednesdays through Saturdays at 7:30 p.m. and Sundays at 2 and 7 p.m. through Oct. 31.
Where • Salt Lake Acting Company, 168 W. 500 North, Salt Lake City
Running time • Three hours and 15 minutes (including 2 intermissions).
Tickets • $15 to $41 with discounts for students, theatergoers under 30 and groups. Call 801-363-SLAC or visit saltlakeactingcompany.org. The show contains adult language and situations.