Can 'Angels in America' Soar Again?

Joan Marcus / Courteys of Angels in America-Signature Theatre

When the revival of Angels in America was announced a few months ago, there was talk of it being an artifact from a remote and different time. After all, AIDS isn't a death sentence any longer, and gay rights have progressed to the point where playwright Tony Kushner's own wedding, in 2003, was the first gay ceremony officially announced by The New York Times. But that was then, before two young men brutally beat a gay patron in the bathroom at … the Stonewall Inn. Before Rutgers freshman Tyler Clementi jumped off the George Washington Bridge amid an alarming number of gay suicides. Before a New York gubernatorial candidate said that children were being "brainwashed" into thinking that homosexuality was an "equally valid and successful option" and before the back-and-forth over "don't ask, don't tell" portended a robust conservatism poised to dominate the next election. Angels may one day be a classic like A Doll's House—still relevant, although much of the political message is old news—but not yet. On every level, Angels has work left to do.

It's easy to forget, 17 years after its Broadway debut, how much weight the play has already carried. Angels in America: A Gay Fantasia on National Themes (the full title) arrived in New York at a time when AIDS was still a dirty acronym—1993 was the year the House of Representatives barred HIV-positive people from entering the country. Angels was suffused with issues both universal and particular to gay life during the plague years. The four gay male characters (a closeted Mormon, a liberal Jew, his AIDS-infected lover, and a militant black nurse) fairly shout the political lesson that gay men come in every recognizable human form. Together, they confront questions such as: What does a healthy partner owe a sick one? What does a homosexual husband owe his wife? At the most abstract level, what is the value of forgiveness? Not just should the abandoned sick man forgive his faithless lover, but should Ethel Rosenberg bless Roy Cohn (who are also characters in the play), and should God forgive his errant human creations? The culture critic Daniel Mendelsohn described the reception of Angels, which won the Pulitzer Prize, as actual "relief"—finally, someone was saying something about AIDS and the American body politic epic enough to suit the subject.

Yet the praise and the prizes did not shield Angels on its flight. Kushner has a thick folder reflecting the play's political impact, including the campaigns to censor it. A dean at Catholic University in Washington banned the play from campus and compared putting on Angels at a Catholic institution to Nazis staging a play in Israel. (When Kushner got wind of the dean's comments, he sent the college administrator a picture of his relatives who were killed by the Nazis. The dean did not write back.) Fundamentalist preacher Rev. Joseph Chambers organized a campaign to stop Angels from opening in Charlotte, N.C., in 1996. Charlotte Rep had just put on a production of Falsettos, a musical about a married man who discovers he is gay, without protest. But Angels—packed full of explicit argument and implicit lessons about American politics in general and gay American politics in particular—was a different story.

Public officials in Charlotte threatened to jail the actors in Angels, and the management at the publicly owned theater told the company it would cancel its access to the building. Finally, a state judge ordered the show to go on. Mary Curtis, at the time the features editor of The Charlotte Observer, took one of her Catholic "church lady" friends to see it. When the curtain came down, the woman leaped to her feet to applaud. "It changed my life," says Willie Repoley, a straight actor still in his teens at the time and contemplating a life in the theater mostly because some of his friends were doing it. Angels taught him the power of theater to convey the reality of people he had never even met—Jews as well as gays. After part one, Repoley turned to his dad and said, "That's why I want to be an actor!"

Today theater is opening doors (and minds) like this every day. Of the 11 plays produced most frequently by professional theater companies in America since 2000, three are gay-themed: I Am My Own Wife, about a transvestite's cunning survival tactics in the old East Germany; Tennessee Williams's The Glass Menagerie; and The Laramie Project, which explores the causes and consequences of Matthew Shepard's murder in Wyoming. Nonprofessional companies have scheduled more than 60 productions of Laramie for the coming year. It's telling that Shepard's mother, Judy, believes The Laramie Project has saved more lives than all the country's hate-crime laws put together.

The ongoing impact of these plays—not to mention the flamboyant politics of Glee—clearly owe a debt to Angels in America. "The theater," Kushner says, "is the only place where trickle-down actually applies. Something that happens in a small part of society can radiate out." In a play as rich as Angels, as the times change, the "something" can change. During the original production, many moments—especially when Prior Walter took off his clothes and revealed how AIDS had eaten away at his emaciated body—were greeted by gasps, so foreign was the disease to the mainstream Broadway audience. By the time of the late-1994 performance that coincided with 25th anniversary of Stonewall, the crowd got so rowdy, the actors had to put cotton in their ears to drown out the audience's laughter. Two decades ago, even the location of a given production signaled a political achievement. When Rick Jacobs, the gay head of the progressive grassroots Courage Campaign, saw the play in Washington in 1994, he could not get over his astonishment at seeing it "at the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts … the nation's capital's temple of culture. The play said we were powerless, but there we were at the most powerful theater in the world. There's a president's box!"

Lonely teenagers—not so different from the desperate young suicides of the last few weeks—who see the new off-Broadway revival won't necessarily look for its lessons in 14th Amendment jurisprudence. But the fact that the characters are human beings—flawed yet worthy, just like anyone else—is impossible to miss. At a recent preview, when Prior Walter proclaimed his closing message of deliverance for gays—"We won't die secret deaths anymore. The world only spins forward. We will be citizens. The time has come"—the ovation broke out before even the last syllable sounded.

Kushner is becomingly modest about the political impact of his work. Plays can have direct social impact, he admits. "Whether Angels had that impact, I don't know. I try not to know. The effect can be indirect, like a dream." But, he says, "you have to believe that your work would have an effect, or why would you do it?" Samuel Goldwyn once told a socially conscious moviemaker, if you want to send a message, call Western Union. Not a bad rule. Angels in America just happens to be the extraordinary exception.