More than a college show

'Angels in America: Millennium Approaches' gets stylish staging

"Angels in America: A Gay Fantasia on National Themes," the award-winning pair of plays that put American playwright Tony Kushner on the map in 1993, is often heralded as one of the most important literary works of the late 20th century -- epic in scope, capturing a moment in history when our country was poised on the brink of cultural change that is still rippling through.

The first play of the series, "Millennium Approaches," is staged more frequently than the second, because it stands alone better, but both are devilishly difficult to produce, placing daunting demands on actors and companies. Foothill's production tackles the show with gusto and style, wrestling it into an engaging, albeit long, evening's entertainment. (A note to Kushner fans: Foothill is also doing a reading of Part Two of the duet, "Perestroika." See schedule below.)

The panoply of characters includes Roy Cohn (Alex Perez), based on the real-life Cohn, closeted conservative McCarthyist lawyer, here an emblem for government corruption and the country's collective denial of the growing AIDS epidemic of the mid-1980s. Cohn himself contracted AIDS but refused to acknowledge it, instead calling it liver cancer; he was also not above bending the law to his own ends. His protégé, Joe Pitt (Dan Martin), also closeted but by religion rather than politics, struggles with sexuality and ethics, as well as his Valium-addicted wife, Harper (Sophia Naylor). The naive Pitts, isolated and lost in urban Manhattan, know their marriage is a sham but cling to each other in desperation. Harper sees assassins and environmental catastrophe everywhere; impending doom immobilizes her, sending her ever deeper into Valium-induced delusions.

In counterpoint, we meet Prior Walter (Tim Garcia) and his boyfriend Louis Ironson (Clinton Williams), who are going through their own identity crises: Prior's AIDS is progressing, and Louis can't deal with it. Their worldly wise drag-queen friend Belize (Davied Morales) tries to help them navigate the disease and the relationship, especially as Prior begins to hear a singular Voice from the ether, calling him to an as-yet unnamed mission.

Help also arrives in the form of Joe's mother, Hannah (Carla Befera in this cast, Marley Westley in others), and in a sage Nurse (Layla Salazar). As complications mount and diseases progress, the Voice continues to impose on Prior, proclaiming momentous events to come. Scenes begin to tumble on top of one another, overlapping and mingling not in linear fashion but like narrative Jenga blocks. Kushner leaves nothing sacred, nothing unexamined by his scorching gaze, flinging us into a time of upheaval and portent. The ending is only the beginning, and the audience is mesmerized by the play's final pronouncement.

More than two decades after its debut, "Angels in America" now feels even more prescient, allowing audiences to see just how many of Kushner's themes have unfolded or are continuing to develop. We are invited once again to mull over Louis' statement, "There are no angels in America." Indeed, who are the Angels of our time?

Foothill's production stretches over three hours including two intermissions, but finds compelling moments and engaging scenes in all three acts, keeping the intrigue and interest in spite of some lulls in the action. Director Bruce McLeod has done a fine job of clever staging, keeping the action moving and fluid on an open stage, making good use of the abstract urban scenic design by Yusuke Soi.

Perez is terrific as Cohn: Oily and affable and dangerous, he breathes this larger-than-life character with a vengeance. Martin is terribly buttoned-down as Joe, which as it turns out is appropriate; he gets to open up emotionally later in the play, and we see his vulnerability. Befera is delightful as numerous characters -- see if you can recognize her in all the parts she plays -- but excellent as Hannah, the bewildered mother. Williams, Garcia and Morales all fit their parts well, but it's often difficult to hear them. Naylor gets deranged Harper right, but it's hard to see any believable connection with Joe, and vocals can get shrill. However, her scenes with Mr. Lies (also Morales) play nicely with great fun. Salazar commendably plays several characters, including the Nurse, although her Hebrew needs more volume.

Sound design by Ryan McLeod and lighting by Dan Wadleigh also make effective contributions to the overall staging, with an impressive ending.

Don't let the length of the performance deter you -- it's a worthy effort, with some excellent portrayals and an effective spectacle.

What: "Angels in America: Millennium Approaches," by Tony Kushner, presented by Foothill College Theatre

Where: Lohman Theatre, Foothill College, 12345 El Monte Road, Los Altos Hills

When: Through June 14, with shows Thursday 7:30 p.m., Friday-Saturday 8 p.m., Sunday 2 p.m. and Wednesday 2 p.m. "Part Two" readings June 7, 10 and 14 at 7:30 p.m.

Cost: $15-$20.

Info: Go to foothill.edu/theatre or call 650-949-7360.

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