★★★★½ Black Swan’s Angels summon more smiles than tears.

Heath Ledger Theatre, Perth
June 2, 2016

The union of great writing and captivating performance in the Black Swan Theatre Company’s latest production is a theatregoer’s delight. Tony Kushner’s celebrated Angels in America is an exploration of being gay during the AIDS epidemic in New York set against the backdrop of Ronald Reagan’s America. Fear, isolation, prejudice, and the sense of an inevitable reckoning infuse the personal and political threads. Despite being set in 1985, the play remains resonant today. For in 2016, the fight for gay rights remains unfinished; the spirit of Roy Cohn lives on in Donald Trump; and the societal consequences of Reaganomics pervade the developed world.

The stories that make up the first part of Angels in America are wrenchingly sad. Early in the play, Prior Walter, a handsome young gay man, is diagnosed with AIDS. His partner Louis, an unswerving liberal, is unable to cope with prospect of Prior’s deterioration and so leaves him. Joe Pitt, a young Reaganite lawyer and protégé of Roy Cohn, clings to a marriage that has been hollowed out by Joe’s repressed homosexuality. Joe’s wife, Harper, is addicted to Valium, delusional, and ‘amazingly unhappy.’ The moral cross-currents and eddies in Angels in America, unlike its ideological positions, are never clear cut and the contradiction between personal conduct and political philosophy is a theme to which Kushner repeatedly returns.

The things that make Angels in America brilliant also make it difficult to perform. Its scope is immense and the play is laden with allusion. Kushner’s dialogue is whip-smart and funny but its rhythms and cadences are tricky and his directions are prescriptive and at times unconventional. It is a testament to the craft of the actors and their director, Kate Cherry, that these challenges were rarely evident during the performance. The cast handled intricate dialogue, regional accents, and split scenes with aplomb. The set was beautiful and uncluttered. Individual pieces of furniture – a table, a couch, a bench, a bed or a hospital gurney – created a sense of space and isolation. Beginning with the floor and ceiling, which alternated between light and dark, lighting was used to great effect throughout the play and energised the finale.

Kushner wrote extraordinary scenes and, with the exception of the opening, each was done justice. Adam Booth as Prior reveals his diagnosis to Louis with a brittle bravado that belies deep fear. A few scenes later Booth neither hams it up nor loses his essential masculinity in the drag sequence. Stuart Halusz embodies the credulous and good-hearted Joe Pitt and is well-complemented by the measured yet creative interpretation of Harper by Jo Morris. Kenneth Ransom as Belize was pitch-perfect, but as Mr Lies, he was a little too interactive with the audience. Felicity McKay as Ella Chapter and Toni Scanlan as Hannah Pitt stand on an empty stage and make it feel like Salt Lake in Utah.

Yet the play belongs to Louis Ironson and Roy Cohn – its least defensible characters. Will O’Mahony’s understated sincerity and matter-of-fact air made Louis more sympathetic in the performance than he is on the page. It was nothing short of masterful. John Stanton invests Roy Cohn with the moody, devilish, and manipulative essence of a man used to wielding power and desperate to retain it. His elaborate attempt to suborn Joe, though ultimately unsuccessful, is a work of art.

If there was a weakness in Black Swan’s production it flowed from some of its strengths. Kushner’s bawdy, absurd, and often gallows humour was a success with the audience and often lightened the mood. The direction and acting added considerable structure to Kushner’s fantasia but it was almost too clean and composed. The epigraph to Angels in America – drawn from Stanley Kunitz’s The Testing-Tree – reads: “In a murderous time / the heart breaks and breaks / and lives by breaking.” Tragically Kushner’s characters feel trapped by sexuality. Roy Cohn, obsessed by power and influence, equates homosexuality with weakness. Joe, who is driven to be a good person by his faith, sees homosexuality as Godless and sinful. Louis, having abandoned his boyfriend, spends the play seeking absolution from everyone he meets. But the cast, with the exception of Halusz as Joe, only intermittently manage to convey this desperation. Thus the deep sadness and visceral fear of the story was sometimes muted.

At the end of the first part of Angels in America, the lives of its protagonists are in disarray. And then the angel descends. It is spectacular. A fine conclusion to an intelligent and striking production. 

Angels in America Part I: Milennium Approaches runs at the Heath Ledger Theatre, Perth until June 19

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