Thursday, January 11, 2018

Pulitzer Prize winning “Angels in America, Part 1” is compelling at Ensemble

On February 23, the Broadway previews for Tony’s Kushner’s Pulitzer Prize-winning, “Angels in America:  A Gay Fantasia On National Themes,” which won 7 Tony Awards in its original production, will begin.  It will be directed by Marianne Elliott who was responsible for “The Curious Incident of the Dog in The Night-Time” and “War Horse,” and star Andrew Garfield and Nathan Lane. 

Lucky you.  It is unnecessary to go to New York to see a production of this epic.  It is now running at Ensemble Theatre as part of their “We The People” 2017-2018 season.  The first segment, subtitled “Angels in America, Part One:  Millennium Approaches,” is running until January 28.  In April, “Angels in America, Part Two:  Perestroika,” will be staged at the theatre.

The play is thought-provoking, character-driven, and complex. 

Centering on church and societal attitudes toward homosexuality, AIDS in America in the 1980s, psychological illness, relationships, political power and supernatural beings (angels and ghosts), it has metaphorical overtones while probing real issues, real people (e.g., Roy Cohen, the legal counsel for the McCarthy Un-American Activities committee) and unnerving ideas.

Set in New York City at the end of October, 1985, the story basically centers on a gay couple (Prior Walter and Louis Ironson) who seem to have a solid relationship until Prior is diagnosed with AIDS.  In panic, Louis abandons Prior. Also showcased are Mormons Joseph Pitt, a closeted homosexual and his wife Harper, who is paranoid and agoraphobic.   Joseph is encouraged by Roy Cohn, a political heavy-weight, to take a position in the Justice Department.  Cohn’s offer is not without purpose, as he expects Joseph to protect him from possible recriminations for bribery and legal manipulation. 

In a state of delusion, Prior begins to receive “visits” from a pair of ghosts who claim to be his own ancestors, and hears an angelic voice telling him to prepare for her arrival.  Meanwhile, Harper retreats into a drug-fueled escapist fantasy, including a dream where she and Prior meet, even though the two of them have never met in the real world.  Joe begins an affair with Louis.

Though he contends he is not gay, but does admits to having sex with men, Cohn is diagnosed with AIDS.  He says he is suffering from cancer, and uses his political connections to get a supply of the newly discovered, experimental drug AZT.  In his delirium he is confronted by the ghost of Ethel Rosenberg, who, along with her husband, were convicted of espionage when Cohn was the prosecutor at their trial.

The Ensemble production, under the adept direction of Celeste Cosentino, is excellent.  

Scott Esposito gives a sensitive portrayal as Prior Walter.  Esposito has the ability to play gay men (e.g., “The Normal Heart”) with sensitivity and no hint of making the character “fey” and false.  He is, he doesn’t act. and Cleveland Critics Circle acclaimed performer, Jeffrey Grover, creates a clear picture of the egotistical, nasty, manipulative Roy Cohn, as man who is easy to hate.

Craig Joseph’s Louis Ironson is a “schlemiel,” without a backbone or principals, who can’t cope when a situation becomes difficult.  Kelly Strand is properly pathetic as Harper Pitt and James Alexander Rankin, as Harper’s husband, Joe, nicely develops the character’s internal struggle to be true to his Mormon faith, while fighting his homosexuality.

Robert Hunter is excellent as Belize, Prior’s ex-lover and Cohn’s nurse. Inés Joris and Derdriu Ring are very effective in multiple roles.

Ian Hinz’s projection design helps give the visual emphasis needed to flesh out the story.  His set and light designs help create meaning, as do Hinz and Celeste Cosentino’s sound and music selections.

Capsule judgment:  Combine a brilliantly written play that has a compelling purpose, with an adept director, a well-conceived set, sound and lighting, and an excellent cast, and you have a first class theater experience.  Yes, it’s over three hours in length, but if you are interested in history, an exploration of social causes and fine staging, this is a must see!

“Angels in America, Part One, Millennium Approaches” runs January 5-January 28, 2018 on Thursdays through Sundays at Ensemble’s Theatre, housed in the former Coventry School, 2843 Washington Blvd, Cleveland Heights.  For tickets call 216-321-2930 or go online to

Ensemble’s next production is Charles Smith’s “Jelly Belly, “a story of a convict returning from a brief prison stay to resume his position as the neighborhood kingpin.  It offers an unremittingly bleak portrait of inner-city life and the enormous pressure on working-class black men to be gangsters.”