- The Washington Times - Friday, October 9, 2009

Nearly a decade into the 21st century, hearing the characters in Forum Theatre’s gorgeous production of Tony Kushner’s Pulitzer Prize-winning drama “Angels in America” talk about the millennium with such hope, fear and anticipation is a rueful experience. In 10 years, what have we done with the gift of a new century, a start as fresh and cleansing as the first snowfall?

Sixteen years after the premiere of this life-changing work, “Angels in America” holds up magnificently. To call it an AIDS play or marginalize it as a “gay play” is an injustice. It is a human play — and a very funny one, to boot: Permeating Mr. Kushner’s poetic, almost Byzantine dialogue is a wicked humor, whether in wry asides, shameless puns or stinging observations.

Set during the Reagan era, “Angels” is a vigorous examination of life and death and the extent to which we are willing to be honest about ourselves. These themes are played out amid the relationship of Louis Ironson (Alexander Strain, who manages to make a pedant palatable and even sympathetic), a nonobservant Jewish intellectual who makes guilt a fine art, and his lover, Prior Walter (Karl Miller), a rococo WASP way far out of the closet. When Prior falls ill from AIDS, Louis abandons him and tortures himself over his inability to handle sickness and death. Prior has bigger issues to deal with than Louis’ ambivalence: There’s AIDS, for one thing, but Prior also is experiencing rapturous, heavenly visions.

On the other end of the spectrum are the play’s demons. The most obvious — and sinfully enjoyable — is lawyer Roy Cohn (Jim Jorgensen, magnificently reptilian), a closeted conservative and worshipper of Joe McCarthy who counts as his greatest accomplishment sending Ethel Rosenberg to the electric chair. Roy is trying to woo protege Joe Pitt (Daniel Eichner), a Mormon law clerk, to be his inside man in Ed Meese’s Justice Department. But Joe is conflicted — over both his closeted homosexuality and his agoraphobic wife, Harper (Casie Platt), who escapes unhappiness and the sexual desert of her marriage with Valium-induced hallucinations.

Director Jeremy Skidmore adeptly juggles the play’s exhilarating extremes: the lofty speeches about democracy and freedom juxtaposed with the almost painfully small moments between two people that are anything but.

Mr. Skidmore also gets unforgettable performances from a top-notch group of actors. You can’t say enough about Mr. Miller’s Prior — seductive and pleasure-seeking even in the midst of illness, both a hedonist and a hero. We should all be on our deathbeds with such flair.

Mr. Strain and Mr. Jorgensen are consumed by anger, with Mr. Strain’s Louis sublimating his in guilt and rumination and Mr. Jorgensen’s Cohn using rage as a source of fearless energy.

Jennifer Mendenhall seamlessly morphs into an aged rabbi and Joe’s flinty mother — and her dainty dance as Ethel Rosenberg around an ailing Roy Cohn is alone worth the price of admission. Nanna Ingvarsson also is a gifted shape-shifter, whether playing a street person, a Mormon real estate agent or an angel.

We can’t stand still, “Angels in America” urges us. Stasis equals death.

★★★½
WHAT: “Angels in America, Part I: Millennium Approaches” by Tony Kushner
WHERE: Forum Theatre at Round House Silver Spring, 8641 Colesville Road, Silver Spring
WHEN: Playing in repertory with “Perestroika”; see www.forumtheatredc.org for full schedule.
TICKETS: $15 to $25
PHONE: 240/644-1100
WEB SITE: www.forumtheatredc.org
MAXIMUM RATING: FOUR STARS

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