By GUY D’ASTOLFO
Tony Kushner’s play “Angels in America, Part 1: Millennium Approaches,” which has won a Pulitzer Prize and a Tony Award, will get its Mahoning Valley premiere this weekend at the Oakland Center for the Arts.
Directing will be Matthew Mazuroski, who has studied the play in a master class led by Kushner.
Bringing the complex piece to the local stage was a daunting thought for Mazuroski. But as rehearsals proceeded, his fears subsided.
“Angels” opens Friday and runs three consecutive weekends.
The play is set in New York City in 1985, the height of the AIDS epidemic, but Mazuroski said it is not an AIDS play. “It’s really a conversation about the state of our politics, the state of religion in this country and the state of our institutions,” he said.
Friday’s performance will be followed by a talk-back session with the cast and production team in the newly opened Oakland Living Room.
“Angels” follows the overlapping plots of Roy Cohn, Joe and Harper Pitt, as well as Prior Walter and his partner, Louis Ironson. Cohn, a lawyer and powerbroker, is driven by “clout,” and he sees people’s identities in terms of where they stand in the social hierarchy. Joe Pitt works for Cohn, who offers him a job in Washington, a source of conflict between Joe and Harper. Harper struggles with addiction as well as her past.
Prior Walter and Louis Ironson, an employee of the federal appeals court, face the brutal reality of Prior’s illness.
As the play progresses, Prior, who is infected with AIDS, gets sicker and he begins to hear a mystical voice, while the rest of the characters are struggling in their relationships and with their personal demons.
The cast of eight plays a total of 20 roles. It consists of James McClellan, Bernie Appugliese, Tyler Clark, Johnny Pecano, Candy DiLullo, Liz Conrad, Timothy Thomas and Molly Galano. Pat Foltz and Michael Hinge stage manage the production.
The three-hour, three-act production contains 26 scenes. Although it was written in 1990 and made its Broadway debut 20 years ago, its message still holds up.
“Audiences will see and hear and feel things that are just as relevant today as they were 20 years ago,” said Mazuroski.
The director calls it a response to Reagan-ism. “It touches on love, couples and the crumbling of the institutions of America,” he said.
Now a Youngstown State University drama professor, Mazuroski was working on his master’s degree in directing at Northwestern University when Kushner came to the school to lead a master class.
In explaining his play, Kushner told the class that theater is always political, but he just makes it overt.
“Angels” parts 1 and 2 are considered the magnum opus of Kushner, who also wrote the screenplay for “Lincoln.” Mazuroski hopes to do part 2 next season, possibly in tandem with part 1 on consecutive nights.
Unlike the play “The Normal Heart,” which the Oakland staged last season, “Angels” isn’t narrowly focused on the AIDS crisis. “It is so much bigger than that,” said Mazuroski. “It is about democracy and what binds us together. Kushner argues that we are a bunch of bickering tribes.”
The prospect of directing the play initially had Mazuroski feeling excited but terrified. “It’s a challenging piece to unlock. But the terror has subsided. I have a terrific cast, plus I’ve learned that it is more difficult to read than it is to watch. Kushner has a wonderful way of linking together couples who seemingly have nothing in common.”
Mazuroski noted that the play has a fantastical nature, including apparitions that appear to certain characters. The action also is pushed into the audience at times, breaking the proverbial fourth wall.