A Century of Suffering

Revisiting the AIDS crisis with Angels in America; remembering Anne Frank as a universal optimist

A sign at the Pillsbury House Theatre on opening night warned that their current production contained nudity, smoking, and strobe lights. This being Minneapolis, land of 10,000 clean-air ordinances, only one of the listed items distressed the opening night audience. "Smoking?" a young man cried out in the lobby, alarmed.

Despite the warning, tobacco hardly appears in Angels in America, Part One: Millennium Approaches. A lone cigarette briefly surfaces toward the end of the play--just long enough to be sucked for a few furtive drags before a cast member flings it to the stage floor and crushes it underfoot.

Secondhand smoke is hardly the most dangerous thing to seep off the stage at the theater. Tony Kushner's play is to millennial AIDS art what Les Misérables is to stories about bread thieves. A sprawling two-parter (only the first of which will be mounted in this production), Kushner's Pulitzer Prize-winning 1990 script is dizzyingly complex. Telling the story of two dissolving relationships during the mid-Eighties, Kushner expands his narrative with a multitude of obsessions. A short list of the themes Millennium Approaches addresses in its three-hour running time includes: Jewish identity politics, the relationship between ethics and power, the complexities of grief, the corrosive legacy of Reaganomics, and the mystical importance of the birth of a new millennium. The sign above the box office at the Pillsbury House Theatre should read, "Warning, this play contains nudity, smoking, strobe lights, and monstrously complex issues."

Father knows best: Anne Frank (Joanna Lawler) and her dad (Stephen D'Ambrose) in a Park Square Theatre production
Father knows best: Anne Frank (Joanna Lawler) and her dad (Stephen D'Ambrose) in a Park Square Theatre production

Although Pillsbury House Theatre has been quiet since the departure of artistic director Ralph Remington, Angels in America is an ambitious attempt at fulfilling the theater's newly articulated mission to provide a venue that allows "marginalized people to have their muted voices heard." (Helping to lead this effort is former Guthrie dramaturg Faye M. Price, and a few Pillsbury veterans.) To borrow from Yiddish, Kushner's play is a vilde chaya, a wild animal of a story. With breathless alacrity, his script moves from giddy comedy to profound grief to pure savagery.

His characters cower onstage from the conflicted messes of their lives and from the deafening sounds of an unseen angel flapping its wings overhead. Prior Walter (played by Blayne Lepke), hallucinating from his AIDS medications, cries out in fright as he is repeatedly visited by ghosts of his plague-ridden ancestors. Flustered housewife Harper Pitt (played by Melissa Lewis), delirious from Valium, wishes herself away to Antarctica and shouts with pleasure upon witnessing the beauty of the dissolving ozone layer. Meanwhile, weak and frail from his own battle with AIDS, notorious Republican power broker Roy Cohn screams profanities at the image of Ethel Rosenberg, whom Cohn helped bring to death.

The character of Cohn (played here with seething, thrilling venom by Steve Hendrickson) is Kushner's tour de force. His vision of Cohn is of a purely political beast who lives to grasp at power, joyously trampling ethics, morality, and simple reason in the process. Informed that he has AIDS, Cohn responds with a stream of perverse logic. AIDS affects homosexuals, Cohn informs his doctor. "Homosexuals are men who in 15 years of trying cannot get a pissant antidiscrimination bill through city council. Homosexuals are men who know nobody and nobody knows....Does this sound like me, Henry?

"This is not sophistry. And this is not hypocrisy," Cohn declares. "This is reality." Cohn then goes on to explain that he is not a homosexual; he is a heterosexual man who screws around with guys. Cohn simply rejects his doctor's diagnosis, explaining, "AIDS is what homosexuals have. I have liver cancer."

Ten years after Kushner first brought angels through the rafters of Los Angeles's Mark Taper Forum, the play's specificity in date and setting (1985, New York) dwindles in importance next to the fierce mysticism of the play. Kushner's approach to mysticism is typically Jewish in that it is messy and terrifying. The ancient prophets did not take pleasure from their contact with the divine; they were bludgeoned by it. And the intrusions of the mystical into the brittle lives of Kushner's characters bring no relief. The play ends with a tremendous cliffhanger, as Prior Walter confronts the angel who has stalked him throughout the play. "The Great Work begins," the angel informs him. "The Messenger has arrived."

The scene engenders as much dread as it does hope, and scenes such as these abound in Angels in America. They fill the nose with a worse fetor than any cigarette smoke. This is tough, disorderly theater, and is at its most bold when it does not attempt to resolve its characters' misery and terror but instead simply observes it.

 

The Diary of Anne Frank, currently playing at the Park Square Theatre, claims to bear witness to history, searching for meaning in the ashes of the Holocaust. While Kushner's play looks back on America in the Eighties and responds with bewilderment, playwrights Francis Goodrich and Albert Hackett used Anne Frank's famous diary in the mid-Fifties as a tool for simplifying history. As the most famous child murdered by the Nazis, Anne Frank has had her story become the subject of endless revisions, from her father's neutering of the trickier aspects of her diary, to a long battle on the part of playwright Meyer Levin to gain recognition for his suppressed stage adaptation. Levin argued that the Goodrich and Hackett script minimized the Jewish content of Frank's story in favor of a blander, more universal appeal. He was not wrong in this observation.

The play, which debuted to immense acclaim on Broadway in 1955, is an elegant and beautifully written adaptation of the diary, but it was written for an American audience that was still reeling from the Holocaust. The nation hardly comprehended what had occurred (people still barely understood Judaism, which explains the play's weird sequence where Jews explain Hanukkah to one another), and could not stomach the death camps. Anne Frank's diary, which ended before her awful, wasting death at Bergen-Belsen, makes the Holocaust palatable.

In fact, the Park Square production feels as though it were set in the Fifties, focusing on Anne's conflict with her mother. Anne (the perky Joanna Lawler) clomps around the tiny set, declaring that she's a modern girl and has big dreams. Her mother (the subdued Donna Porfiri) frets and does the dishes, while Anne's father (the stoic Stephen D'Ambrose) insists that his daughter is just going through a phase. Zipping from one meaningful beat to the next, the cast of the Park Square Theatre inhabit their marvelous set as though this were a sitcom, albeit one with horrifying undertones. Were this not the Holocaust, and were the ending not tragic, this could be an episode of Father (Frank) Knows Best.

The play ends with Anne's shallow optimism, quoting her famous "In spite of everything, I still believe that people are really good at heart." It is hard to imagine that Anne would have repeated those sentiments while spitting up blood in the death camps, but it is a sentiment that the United States very badly needed to hear. How different a summary this is than Kushner's, voiced by Roy Cohn to a Mormon assistant. "The world will wipe its dirty hands all over you," he says. Ugly words, yes; but in the world that murdered Anne Frank, they ring appallingly true.

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