“It’s a play we’ve wanted to do forever,” Philip Crosby, Richmond Triangle Players’ managing director, says of the Pulitzer-winning Angels in America: Millennium Approaches (part one of Tony Kushner’s seven-hour epic). “I think we’re at the point in our history as a theater company that we can really pull it off." Crosby adds that the company hopes to also present the second part, Perestroika, as a staged reading.
The play is set in 1985, a time of rampant fear about AIDS. Characters include a gay couple coping with an AIDS diagnosis, a Mormon lawyer and his wife, a right-wing Justice Department official and the ghost of Ethel Rosenberg (executed for conspiracy to commit espionage), among others. Though much has changed since then, Crosby says there are still lessons to be learned about acceptance of each others' differences. "If you forget your history, you’re doomed to repeat it," he says. "We tend to forget that back in those times, people wouldn’t even touch someone who had AIDS." Despite significant advances, he says, "If we’re all open and perfect, we wouldn't have teenagers killing themselves because they’re gay."
Bo Wilson, the director, says he lunged at the opportunity to be part of the production. "It’s a play that I knew, and I know it to be not only capital 'I' important in the landscape of theater arts and even, I suppose, social commentary, but it’s also a wonderful piece of playwriting," he says. Even so, he found the project a bit daunting. "The sweep of the piece is immense. It’s 26 scenes, 19 different environments, eight actors playing over 20 different characters — it’s Cecil B. DeMille huge."
In the end, the troupe took a less-is-more approach, Wilson says. "It does ultimately boil down to storytelling and the power of an actor and the power of an audience to go along with the actors. Once you begin letting the actors and the words carry you, it becomes true that anything is possible.”
In the same theater, on six alternate days, TheatreLab will present Harrison David Rivers’ When Last We Flew, in which a teenage Kansas boy’s life begins to change after reading his library’s only copy of Angels. And in another twist, TheatreLab’s artistic director, Deejay Gray, is playing one of the central roles in the RTP production.
“Angels in America is my favorite play of all time. It’s is arguably the reason I decided to go into theater,” Gray says. He'd heard about the Rivers play after a friend saw it at a fringe festival. When Crosby told him that Richmond Triangle Players was planning to stage Angels, Gray says, "I said, 'I've got an idea.' " He adds, "Doing a companion piece like that is exciting for me. ... I think it’s a great way to kind of cross-pollinate your audiences." TheatreLab's production is directed by Chelsea Burke, the company's director of new works.
When Last We Flew is so new, in fact, that the Richmond show is one of the first productions, Gray says. "We’ve been in pretty close contact with Harrison, the playwright," he adds, noting that this will be the first time it's been performed in repertory with Angels in America. "[Rivers] was hoping one day it would happen."