Set in New York City during the Reagan-era, 15 years before the new millennium, Angels in America: A Gay Fantasia on National Themes follows the tumultuous journey of two distressed relationships during the HIV/AIDS epidemic. The first, between Prior Walter (Adam Booth), a young gay man living with AIDS, and his lover and partner of four years Louis Ironson (Will O’Mahony). The second, between Mormons Joe Pitt (Stuart Halusz) – Louis’ boss and a closet homosexual – and his valium-addicted wife Harper (Jo Morris).
Helmed by Artistic Director Kate Cherry, her legacy piece is the pinnacle of Black Swan State Theatre Company’s 2016 programming. Part One of Tony Kushner’s play Millennium Approaches comes to life for the first time in WA.
Assembling a brilliant ensemble, it is impossible to say any one performer is more captivating than another. Jo Morris is superbly unhinged as Joe’s delusional, neurotic wife. Tired of her lonely existence as a housewife, she is kept company by her corporeal delusions. When she summons one such delusion to whisk her away to ‘Antarctica’, seeking a safe space from the danger she thinks her husband represents, her child-like sincerity, naivety and playfulness is mesmerizing.
Veteran performer John Stanton is mesmerizing as Roy Cohn, a Republican lawyer and right-wing warrior who epitomizes the politics of the day. Based on a real person, a one -time mentor to Donald Trump, his tirades on power and influence fire the production, though he was a little hard to hear at times due to the ‘dead-spots’ in the State Theatre Centre.
With wide-eyed Jewish guilt, Will O’Mahony’s portrayal of the anxious, self-serving and cowardly Louis is true to character. He claims to love Prior, but the ease with which he abandons him in his time of greatest need belies this, and Louis’ ability to sail between torment and casual flirtation makes him a truly dislikeable character. Of particular note is O’Mahony’s scene with Black Swan Associate Director Stuart Halusz, who plays the timid Joe Pitt. Joe stumbles upon Louis crying in a bathroom of the courthouse in which they both work, and they strike up a rapport based upon Louis’ (correct) suspicion that Joe is gay.
Set and Costume Designer Christina Smith heads up the visual spectacle, with dated 80s costumes partnered with an ultramodern set, including an LED roof that rotates and descends during the production. With support from Lighting Designer Matt Scott and Sound Designer Ash Gibson Greig, she successfully transports the audience from the streets of the Bronx to Prior’s hospital and on to Antarctica. The Angel’s shattering appearance in the final moments is a brilliant and inspiring collaboration that sees the radiant Felicity McKay swoop down from the heavens.
The play is not without some comic relief, but is largely heavy going and the State Theatre Centre crackled with a sense of disquiet. The bill warns of sex and nudity, but with all the eroticism of a Northbridge rub ‘n’ tug these scenes merely heighten the visceral nature of the performance.
Loaded with now-uncommon references to Reaganites and McCarthyism, culture wars and anti-communists, Angels in America channels the paranoia about the millennia and reflects the anxieties of the time. Having won the Pulitzer Prize for Drama and the Tony Award for Best Play (twice), Angels in America truly struck a chord that resonates today.
Words by Samuel J. Cox
Angels in America: Part One Millennium Approaches runs 28 May to June 19 at the Heath Ledger Theatre. Tickets available here.
You can read our interview with Kenneth Ransom, who plays Louis’ friend and an ex-drag queen called Belize, here.