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The Great Question before us is: Are we doomed?
The Great Question before us is: Will the Past release us?
The Great Question before us is: Can we Change? In Time?
So begins Perestroika, the second part of Tony Kushner’s massive, brilliant Angels in America. By the final curtain, four hours later (yes, four hours), we won’t really have answers — how could we? — but oh my, what we’ve experienced. And about one thing I am absolutely certain: Blanka Zizka’s production of Angels at the Wilma is one of the triumphant events in my 20-plus years of Philadelphia theatergoing.
Before moving to the details of Perestroika, a recap of the first half, Millennium Approaches, which closed the Wilma’s last season, is in order. (Note: A few performances of Millennium will be offered this season, along with two marathon performances of both plays. These are likely to sell out — the wise will book early.)
Part I of Angels explores the connected lives of two couples living in New York in the mid-1980s. Joe and Harper are recently married Mormons, transplanted from Utah. Joe is a closeted lawyer being groomed by his mentor, Roy Cohen (a conservative power player in the Rosenbergs’ espionage trial and the McCarthy hearings), for a seemingly limitless political future in the Republican Party; Harper is a pill-popping neurotic, with inner voices that regularly tell her everything is not OK. Louis and Prior are gay partners facing seemingly impossible odds — the AIDS epidemic is now at full throttle. Indeed, early in the play, Prior himself is diagnosed with the disease. In the unforgettable final moments of Millennium, an Angel visits Prior and declares him her new prophet.
Perestroika picks up where Millennium left off, with what for many in the audience will be a happy surprise: Despite the appearance of the Angel, Prior is very much alive — not well, but alive and fighting. (In 1986, when the play is set — and even in 1992, when it was written — his diagnosis was very much a death sentence. At the time, Prior’s survival seemed like a flight of fantasy or, perhaps even more, like authorial wish fulfillment.) But Prior has been profoundly changed by the visitation. His anointment by the Angel has given Prior a prophet’s visions and galvanized him as an activist.
In shifting the central emphasis in Perestroika to Prior, Kushner moves us into a sprawling, chaotic social and political maelstrom. The personal narratives so central to Millennium now take a backseat to something grander and more spiritual, as the play’s opening questions suggest.
We follow two new couples, Joe and Louis (now improbably together) and Harper and Hannah, Joe’s tough-as-leather mother, who reluctantly appoints herself the guardian of her abandoned, off-her-meds daughter-in-law. And we watch, with vengeful glee tempered only slightly by guilt, the final agonizing hours of Roy Cohen — who turns out to be closeted and also to have AIDS. But in Perestroika, the bigger world is spinning faster, and the future is less certain than ever.
Zizka is working again with the eight excellent actors (Kate Czajkowski, Aubrey Deeker, Maia DeSanti, James Ijames, Stephen Novelli, Benjamin Pelteson, Mary Elizabeth Scallen, Luigi Sottile) who served her so well in Millennium, here cast for the most part as the same characters (along with a few additional ones, all played by the ensemble). She also has the same superb design team — scenery by Matt Saunders, lighting by Russell Champa, costumes by Oana Botez-Ban, sound by Christopher Colucci.
Still, it was not a forgone conclusion that the success of Millennium would repeat itself — Perestroika presents different challenges. It’s far longer, more freewheeling and disjointed. Scenes and locations shift with almost cinematic speed, and the difficult special effect of flying, incidental in the first play, is called for repeatedly here. (Perhaps for these reasons, Mike Nichols’ HBO miniseries of Angels, which for me disappoints in Millennium, really shines in Perestroika.)
Inevitably, Zizka’s production is not without a few bumpy patches. I wish she had applied a firmer editorial hand to parts of the script, which go on longer than necessary. The white-box set that worked so well in Millennium is equally effective in Perestroika — mostly — but now and then we’re aware of some of the things it can’t do. The flying is accomplished, but too carefully — we don’t get the sense of liftoff we hope for. And very occasionally, the acting seems to skim the surface, rather than dig deep. In Zizka’s Millennium, I thought the sardonic moments worked better than the elegiac ones, and that’s the case here, too.
But the final scenes of the play — especially the Council of Continental Principalities, a dreamlike, heaven-set episode that’s notoriously difficult to pull off — are simply magnificent. Kushner’s closing words, “The Great Work begins,” echo on for days, weeks, maybe years to come. Brava, Blanka and company — your great work continues.
Angels in America, Part Two: Perestroika, through Oct. 21, Wilma Theater, 265 S. Broad St., 215-546-7824, wilmatheater.org.