If ever there’s been a reason for Los Angeles playgoers to plan a road trip to San Diego, it’s ion theatre company’s current revival of Tony Kushner’s rarely produced Angels in America: A Gay Fantasia on National Themes, presented in two parts, making for a total of over six hours of thrilling, event-status theater.

First staged a decade after the not yet named acquired immune deficiency syndrome claimed its first victims, Kushner’s masterwork focuses on a half dozen or so New York natives and Big Apple transplants who find their lives affected in one way or another by AIDS.

There’s WASPy umpteenth generation American Prior Walter (Kyle Sorrell), whose confession of his AIDS status proves too much for his raised-Jewish lover Louis Ironson (Jason Maddy), ultimately sending the Court Of Appeals word processor into the arms of married Utah-bred Mormon Joe Pitt (Jason Heil), whose pill-popping wife Harper (Jessica John Gercke) already has problems enough without adding a closet case hubby to the mix. And speaking of closet cases, Joe soon finds himself working for the soon to be AIDS-ravaged Roy M. Cohn (Jesse MacKinnon), the real-life attorney who gained fame for his participation in the infamous Congressional witch hunts of the early 1950s and for sending convicted traitors Ethel and Julius Rosenberg to the electric chair. Completing the cast of principal characters are Joe’s mother Hannah Pitt (Catalina Maynard), AIDS nurse Belize (Kevane La’Marr Coleman), and the Angel Of America (Karson St. John), who brings Prior a message from the Almighty.

It takes considerable chutzpah for a theater company to stage both Angels In America: Millennium Approaches and Angels In America: Perestroika, whose combined length alone is easily the equivalent of three full-length plays. Angels In America’s sixty scenes divided into eight acts and two separate plays (which can be seen on alternate weekday evenings or together on Saturdays and Sundays)—take us from a Jewish cemetery to Roy Cohn’s office to various apartments to assorted hospital rooms to a posh Manhattan restaurant to Brooklyn’s Hall Of Justice Building to Salt Lake City to Antarctica to the streets of New York to the Soviet Kremlin to Manhattan’s Mormon Visitor’s Center to the dunes of Jones Beach to Central Park’s Bethesda Fountain and even to Heaven itself, all of which we see mostly in our minds’ eyes, the folks at ion having stuck to Kushner’s instructions to keep set design to a minimum. Still, the mere number of scene changes is mind boggling, and as the above makes amply clear, if any theatrical work truly deserves the term Epic as first envisioned by Homer in his Odyssey and Illiad, then Angels In America is that piece of theater.

Over the course of Angels (Parts One and Two), Kushner takes us on multiple quests—Louis’s towards an ability to truly commit to another person, Joe’s towards the exploration and embrace of a sexual orientation he has fled until now, Harper’s towards an independent, mentally healthy life, and by far the greatest of all, Prior’s towards the strength and confidence to battle for his life against the most formidable of challenges.

The more fantastical parts of Angels In America will sail over the heads of some audience members, including I must confess this reviewer’s. Nonetheless, even at its most abstruse, Kushner’s matching set of plays are rarely less than enthralling, the length of time we spend with his richly detailed characters allowing us to get to know them in greater depth than any traditionally-lengthed play could ever possibly do.

Kushner’s rich panoply of characters are brought to vivid life by a cast of San Diego-based actors who can easily hold their own against the finest Los Angeles, New York, or Chicago have to offer, their accomplishment made all the more remarkable by the fact that these six plus hours of live theater were rehearsed in a mere six weeks. In fact, out of a cast of eight, only one actor was less than letter perfect with his lines in the production’s second weekend.

At the pinnacle of a towering cast, Sorrell gives one of the finest and most multi-layered performances you’re likely to see all year as Prior, a man driven close to insanity by the combined challenges of life-threatening illness and an Angel with a mind of her own—truly dazzling work that in and of itself makes Angels In America worth the price of two tickets. Still, this is not the only brilliant work you’ll be seeing on the Lyceum Theatre stage.

Maddy is out-and-out sensational as Louis, never letting the character’s cowardice or the surrendering of his principles blind us to the fact that this is a living, breathing human being whose flaws simply make him more human. Weil does intense, committed work as Joe, giving us a man torn between duty and desire, between principles and taking the easy way out. Gercke is a memorable marvel as the loopy, loveable Harper, Maynard creates a rainbow of diverse characters (her elderly Rabbi, even more elderly Bolshevik, and steely Ethel Rosenberg being particular standouts), and St. John is never less than splendid as (among others) the Angel, a Noo Yawk nurse, a loony from the South Bronx, and a Salt Lake City realtor. As Belize, Coleman takes the role that won Jeffrey Wright virtually every stage and small screen acting award in the book and makes him fabulously and unforgettably his very own. Only MacKinnon disappoints, not because his Roy Cohn isn’t the strident, vulgar, nasty, underhanded, scum of the earth that won awards for both Broadway’s Ron Liebman and TV’s Al Pacino but because even two weeks into the run, he has not mastered his lines, taking us out of the play every time he fluffs one, which is far too frequently.

Glenn Paris and Claudio Raygoza deserve highest marks for helming a piece of theater so epic that a single director could not suffice.

An ingenious multi-level, black-box, thrust-set scenic design takes us lickety-split from locale to locale, scene changes speedily facilitated by cast and crew while accompanied by sound designer Melanie Chen’s gorgeous mood-maintaining musical underscoring. Kudos go out to Karin Filijan for her varied, atmospheric lighting design, Gercke for her terrific double duty as (‘80s-era) costume designer, and Raygoza for his scene-setting projections. (Only the pivotal Angel Of Bethesda ends up nearly invisible against a black backdrop.) Melissa Coleman-Reed’s makeup effects are as realistic-looking as it gets.

Stage manager Ryan Ford and assistant stage managers Lindy Luong and Sylvia Trinh deserve special mention for work above and beyond the call of stage managerial duty. Evan Paris is production coordinator.

If a person’s love of theater can be gauged by just how far he or she will go to see something truly great, then any L.A.-based, bona fide theater lover is hereby urged to drive on down the San Diego Freeway for a Saturday or Sunday of Angels In America before the chance to experience Tony Kushner’s masterpiece-done-right ends up a missed opportunity. Yes, it’s possible that some ambitious Los Angeles company may end up staging all six hours of Angels sometime before the end of the decade, but don’t hold your breath. Instead, head on down to San Diego before it’s too late. You’ll be grateful you did.

ion theatre company, Lyceum Theatre, 79 Horton Plaza, San Diego.

–Steven Stanley
November 26, 2011

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