Backstage with ‘Angels in America’

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(Host)This week, students at Marlboro College are performing Tony Kushner’s Pulitzer-winning drama, “Angels in America.”

The play uses the AIDS epidemic and issues of gay identity to explore questions that connect us all.

VPR’s Susan Keese goes backstage for a preview.

(Ripping, Explosion sound)

(Keese) Just about every character in Angels in America finds his or her world crashing and shattering. And just about every character grapples with the burdens of personal history.

The play begins at a funeral. An aged rabbi lashes out at the goyishe-named grandchildren of the immigrant woman he’s burying.

(Rabbi) “You do not live in America. No such place exists. Your clay is the clay of some Litvak Shtetl, your air the air of the steps because she carried the old world on her back, across the ocean on her back in a boat and she put it down on Grand Concourse Avenue or in Flatbush and she worked that earth into your bones, this ancient, ancient culture and home…. so … she was the last of the Mohicans this one was.”

(Keese) Anushka Pares plays the rabbi.

(Pares) “He’s sick of seeing all these people in the audience who don’t know their identity. And so right from the start Kushner sets up these themes of identity, of heritage.”

(Keese) The dead woman’s gay grandson Lou is sitting in back with his WASP-y partner, Prior. He’s about to learn that Prior has AIDS. The play is set in the eighties, when the virus was inevitably a death sentence.

Lou tries to confess to the rabbi that he’s going to leave Prior because he can’t handle a messy fatal disease. The rabbi has no sympathy. He growls, If you wanted forgiveness you should have been born a Christian.’

Another character, Joe, is a gay, Mormon Republican. As the play begins he struggles mightily with his conflicted identity.

His wife Harper is a valium-addicted Utah girl uprooted to New York.

(Harper) “When you pray, what do you pray for?”
(Joe) “I pray for God to crush me into little pieces and start all over.”
(Harper) “Oh please, don’t pray for that.”

(Keese) Mnesyne Heileman plays Harper.

(Heileman) “When everything comes out with Joe being a homosexual her world falls apart. And I think that’s interesting to see in this play — the crashing of the character’s life and to see how she recovers from that. How all of the characters recover from that.”

(Keese) Wanda Strukus teaches theater at Marlboro, and directs the play. She sees it as an accumulation of 25 vignettes.

(Strukus) “Of 25 little moments, Twenty-five little arguments, 25 little questions, really moments of all these different lives that are so connected.”

(Keese) The characters connect in unexpected ways and intrude on one another’s dreams and hallucinations. All of them are haunted.

Joe wrestles with a Mormon angel. A scurrilous politician dying of AIDS is haunted by the ghost of Ethel Rosenberg.

But none is more directly –or perhaps productively– haunted than Prior. Sick and abandoned by his lover, he’s visited by an angel who hails him as a profit and chosen one.

(Crashing sound)

(Angel) “A marvelous work and wonder we undertake, a great lie we abolish — a great error we correct with the rule sword and broom of truth.”
(Prior) “What are you talking about?”
(Angel) “I am on my way. When I return our work begins. Prepare for the parting of the air, the breath, the ascent…. Glory to!”

(Keese) The students say the angel represents hope.

Wanda Strukus, the director, says the play asks whether a community — or a nation — can open its arms to embrace everyone.

It doesn’t offer any answers, but the questions themselves are full of promise.

For Vermont Public Radio, I’m Susan Keese.

Note: The Marlboro College production of Angels in America is free and open to the public. The play runs Thursday, Friday and Saturday, with a Sunday matinee.

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