Angels Still True

Share this Post:
From left: Maurice Emmanuel Parent, Kari Buckley, Eddie Shields (seated), Nael Nacer, and Helen Hy-Yuen Swanson in Central Square Theater-Bedlam production of "Angels in America: Millennium Approaches" at Central Square Theater.NILE SCOTT STUDIOS
From left: Maurice Emmanuel Parent, Kari Buckley, Eddie Shields (seated), Nael Nacer, and Helen Hy-Yuen Swanson in Central Square Theater-Bedlam production of "Angels in America: Millennium Approaches" at Central Square Theater.NILE SCOTT STUDIOS

Angels in America: A Gay Fantasia on National Themes. Central Square Theater and Bedlam, at Central Square Theater, Cambridge, through May 21.617-576-9278 or

Rabbi Isidor Chemelwitz, in paying respects at the passing of Sarah Ironson at the start of "Angels in America, Part 1," speaks of the 1985 United States as a "melting pot where nothing melted." Later Ironson's liberal gay grandson Louis will claim there are no angels in America.

Both when Tony Kushner's Pulitzer Prize and Tony Award-winning play first opened on Broadway in 1993 and 30 years later, the Rabbi's comment still stands as anti-Semitism, racism and ethnic polarization persist.

As for Louis Ironson's claim, "Millennium Approaches" seems to counter with the hope that there are not only unseen spiritual messengers but also protective human ones.

Kushner's timely and transcendent gay fantasia remains a forceful call for caring and understanding—now in a heavenly collaborative revival by Bedlam and Central Square Theater on the latter's home stage.

Bedlam artistic director Eric Tucker—who portrays Roy Cohn at many of the revival's performances—quickly establishes that forcefulness by having the corrupt Republican lawyer move swiftly from call to call on his phone system (with actors ringing with their voices) while seated in an office chair with wheels. At the performance this critic saw, Steven Barkhimer was commandingly imperious as Cohn swore, ordered and maneuvered.

At times the Bedlam director always quickly transforms key items as scenes and sequences change—for example morphing a simple large white sheet from a burial shroud to a bed covering and even a Gloria Swanson diva wrap.

Tucker's trademark spare approach particularly hones in on the contrast between the play's focal couples—word processor Louis and his AIDS-stricken boyfriend Prior Walter on the one hand and pill-popping Mormon wife Harper Pitt and her ostensibly straight Republican husband Joe—who clerks for a Brooklyn federal appeals court judge—on the other.

Phobic Ironson has trouble dealing with Walter's sickness, while Joe is struggling to come to terms with his strong attraction to men.

For her part, Harper seems eager to have a baby. Kushner has Louis speak of the total complexity of a life, and the same goes for the three men and one woman in question as well as Cohn—who sees protégé Joe as a kind of prodigal son and denies he has AIDS, calling his illness liver cancer.

The prophet-like playwright includes observations as true today as in the 1980's. Harper worries about a hole in the ozone layer and melting icebergs before regular concern about climate change. A colleague of Cohn's speaks about abortion issues, making the Supreme Court conservative and turning around liberal political impact—all still very much in the news. Kushner is never preachy here, though these themes and the characters' respective difficulties connecting or empathizing prove equally 'national' (to refer to the play's subtitle).

By contrast, the powerful revival's very talented cast members perfectly connect with their roles. Barkhimer smartly balances Cohn's volatile outbursts and his fatherly counsel with Joe. Gifted Eddie Shields captures Walter's anguish with Louis and tenacity in the face of pressure. His Gloria Swanson-Norma Desmond close-up is a highlight. Zach Fike Hodges finds all of Louis' Jewish guilt and self- doubts. Kari Buckley catches Harper's growing need to escape. Nael Nacer sharply develops Joe's attraction to Louis. Maurice Emmanuel Parent, properly jazzy as unconventional nurse Belize, beautifully understates the black ex-drag queen's reaction to Louis' rattling tirade about anti-Semitism and racism. Debra Wise is a standout as the tallit and yarmulke-wearing Rabbi and equally convincing as Joe's traditional mother Hannah and the ghost of Ethel Rosenberg—whose visit to Cohn is brilliantly lit by designer John Malinowski. Helen Hy-Yuen Swanson makes the most of the approaching Angel.

Ambivalence proves as much of a buzzword here as mendacity in Tennessee Williams' "Cat on a Hot Tin Roof." Do not look for any ambivalence in the Central Square Theater-Bedlam collaboration. To borrow from the Angel, the great work has begun with this sublime "Millennium Approaches."

(Look for "Part Two:Perestroika" in September)