It’s a very good thing that the latest production by Desert Rose Playhouse, Tony Kushner’s Angels in America, Part One: Millennium Approaches, has settled in for a six-week run. That gives a large percentage of valley theater-lovers the chance to see it.
And they should.
The play, which won a Tony, a Drama Desk Award and the Pulitzer Prize for Drama in 1993, is an ambitious undertaking. The only way to do Kushner’s powerful script justice is with amazing acting—and director Jim Strait’s cast delivers.
The story is set in 1985. Ronald Reagan is president, and AIDS has begun ravaging the gay population. We meet two couples: Prior Walter (Nick Edwards), who is battling the disease, and his lover, Louis Ironson (Daniel Gutierrez); and Joe Porter Pitt (Alex Updike), a devout Mormon lawyer in denial about his homosexuality, and his unstable, Valium-addicted wife, Harper (Allison Feist).
Joe has gone to work for gruff, conservative Roy Cohn (Eliott Goretsky), who is also closeted and battling AIDS, but refuses to accept the diagnosis. Cohn believes gay men are weak and powerless; he refers to his illness as cancer instead. Meanwhile, Louis cannot handle the realities of the disease, and cruelly abandons Prior when the first Kaposi’s sarcoma lesions appear.
Interfacing with both patients is AIDS hospital-ward nurse Belize (the superb Robert Ramirez). Doing double duty as the fur-coat-wearing Mr. Lies, Ramirez is caring, campy, hilarious and viciously witty all at the same time.
When Joe finally comes out of the closet, his mother, Hannah (Adina Lawson), travels from Salt Lake City to try to push him back in.
Director Jim Strait (who also designed the set, sound and projections) brings out the best in each member of his stellar cast. Each actor is a standout.
Nick Edwards rips your heart out as the dying Prior. His depiction of what AIDS does to the body is wrenching. This is an award-winning performance. As his Jewish lover, Louis, Daniel Gutierrez ably portrays a mix of guilt and callousness. His performance occasionally seemed to lack just a bit of energy, but that may have been an artistic choice for the character.
Goretsky’s Roy Cohn (based on the real political figure) is fabulous: dark, cynical, condescending and yet charismatic as he spews profanity at clients and barks orders at underlings over the phone. Just as strong is Alex Updike as the conflicted Joe. Talk about issues: He has the ultimate glass-half-empty guy, Roy Cohn, for a boss; a pill-popping, delusional wife; and a sexual attraction to men that he refuses to acknowledge. Updike’s emotional pain is palpable.
As Joe’s beleaguered wife, Harper, Allison Feist is impressive. I’ve seen this young actress in a number of productions now, and she never disappoints. She’s got a long career ahead of her.
Loren Freeman—a standout in the recent A Queer Carol—is terrific here as well in several cameos (The Angel, Nurse, Sister Ella Chapter, A Homeless Woman in the Bronx). He exudes presence, which is something you cannot teach.
Rounding out the cast is the amazingly versatile Adina Lawson. She also plays multiple parts, hitting each one out of the ballpark. Unrecognizable as a rabbi in the show’s opening, she is also notable as the ghost of Ethel Rosenberg, a woman executed for being a Soviet spy. I can’t help but grin each time I go to a show and see her name in the program; I know the audience is in for a treat.
This play is challenging technically, and Desert Rose rises to the occasion. There are lots of quick scene changes, and they are executed quite well. Phil Murphy should take a bow for his prism lightning design during those changes; it is beautiful and quite effective. Designer Tom Valach creates just the right dramatic tone with the angel costume, and the other costumes, hair and makeup are spot on.
The Desert Rose Playhouse is producing Angels in America as its annual Gay Heritage Production. Desert Rose is the Coachella Valley’s only LGBT and gay-positive stage company, and most everything the playhouse does is edgy and often pushes the envelope. So be warned: This show does contain brief full frontal nudity and a fairly graphic depiction of gay sex. Also keep in mind the show is 3 1/2 hours long—although the time whizzes by.
This play is not for the faint of heart; it touches on love, sex, death, betrayal, greed, bigotry, addiction and the afterlife. It will shake you to your core—and might make you look at what you’re doing with the time you have left on this Earth.
It’s damn good theater. Don’t miss it.
Angels in America, Part One: Millennium Approaches is performed at 8 p.m., Friday and Saturday; and 2 p.m., Sunday, through Sunday, Feb. 21, at the Desert Rose Playhouse, 69620 Highway 111, in Rancho Mirage. Evening tickets are $33; matinee tickets are $30. Running time is 3 1/2 hours, with two 10-minute intermissions. For tickets or more information, call 760-202-3000, or visit www.desertroseplayhouse.org.