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Angels in America’ full of emotions and laughs

Observer Scene | Monday, March 21, 2005

At the beginning of Part Two of “Angels in America,” a character whose husband left her wanders around in a mystified daze.

“When your heart breaks, you should die,” she says.

This line captures the appeal of Tony Kushner’s two-part “Angels in America.” The St. Edward’s Hall Players performed the second part last weekend as a staged reading. Even if the audience can’t exactly identify with an apparently insane woman, or any of the other quirky characters, the themes reach out to every person who has ever felt brokenhearted, hopeful, angry, confused or betrayed.

“Part Two: Perestroika” was performed Saturday and Sunday in the Washington Hall Lab Theatre as a benefit; “Part One: Millennium Approaches” was performed last semester. Admission was free, but donations were collected at the door for the American Foundation for AIDS research. The Pulitzer Prize-winning play addresses many issues that spark controversy on this campus – homosexuality, religion, politics, racism and more.

Each part of “Angels in America” is long enough and comprehensive enough to stand alone, tackling these difficult issues freely and with plenty of sexuality, profanity and hysterically funny oneliners and scenes. Last semester’s production introduced the cast of complex characters, who interact during the Reagan presidency as AIDS spreads in America.

Prior Walter (Andre Valdivia) has AIDS – and as if he doesn’t have enough stress, he is chosen by angels to be a prophet. Roy Cohn (Scott Wagner), based on the actual attorney who became famous for high-profile anti-communist cases and celebrity clients, also has AIDS but is in denial. Belize (Mark Ross), a gay black nurse, provides comic relief as well as a voice of reason and truth; Joe (Adam Bonosky), a gay Mormon man who is married to Harper (Lena Caligiuri), struggles with his homosexuality throughout the play.

Caligiuri saw her character, with all of her oddities, as representing any woman who has been wounded and doesn’t know what to do with herself.

“You don’t have to be a Mormon who married a closeted homosexual to identify with her,” Caligiuri said. She pointed out that although Harper doesn’t deal well with her heartbreak, she shows outwardly what most girls feel inwardly – she falls apart in a way that most people hide.

Joe’s mother, Hannah (Ellen Kennedy), is more compassionate than most of the crowd, although she claims not to feel pity. Louis (Joe Garlock), who left Prior out of fear of his AIDS, helps the uncomfortable Joe accept his sexuality. Through it all, Cricket Slattery as the Angel America haunts Prior about being a prophet.

The actors’ portrayals of these passionate characters are what make the lengthy production worth a viewing. Prior and Belize, even with the tragedy of all the dying in their lives, are constantly hilarious – especially Belize. He’s the stereotypical flamboyant gay man who makes no apologies for being homosexual, black or a nurse.

His attitude contrasts nicely with another of the best-played characters, the hateful yet hysterically funny Roy. Roy’s offensive tirades keep up despite Belize’s attempt to give him advice on his treatment, so Roy asks him why he should listen to him instead of his WASP doctor.

“He’s not queer, I am,” Belize says.

The play is overflowing with lines that strike nerves, but it was the play’s handling of homosexuality and, for that matter, sexuality in general that hit hardest. The Angel America’s sex scenes were a combination of the narrator (Kate Kenahan) reading graphic passages and the actors’ Meg Ryan-esque orgasm performances. Some of the script’s scenes seemed gratuitous, although most served a greater purpose of shining light on sexual and emotional issues.

The script is full of heartbreak, but also makes room for forgiveness and hope. Prior and Harper epitomize the phenomenon of not being able to move forward from unrequited love, lingering instead in the past and what went wrong. When Louis and Joe make “Swingers”-like reappearances, though, their rejected lovers must reevaluate the one thing they’ve been wanting for so long.

Dealing with such weighty issues for three hours could have been quite draining, so the lighter moments were refreshing. One of the funniest scenes was when Prior and Belize decide to confront Joe at the courthouse where he works, as Prior snaps, “I have a hobby now! Haunting people!” He yells at Joe for breaking hearts, while Belize is interested mainly in seeing what Joe looks like. Prior then proceeds to pretend to be a mental patient and tries to make his “nurse” play along with great results.

“I’m trapped in a world of white people, that’s my problem,” Belize laments.

Later, Prior ends up at the hospital with Joe’s mother and matter-of-factly introduces Hannah as “my ex-lover’s lover’s Mormon mother.” After Hannah describes men as lumpish and stupid, he reacts with surprise.

“I wish you would be more true to your demographic profile,” he tells her.

For co-director and actor Ross, his favorite message of the play came during the monologue at the end about life on earth – even with everything that happens, there are still people caring for us. He thought that the play’s presentation helped it be more thought-provoking and startling.

“It brings all these things into very sharp contrast, in a way you’re not used to dealing with,” Ross said.

Co-director and actor Caligiuri said that her favorite message in the play was in Prior’s epilogue, when he says they, the AIDS sufferers, won’t die “secret deaths” anymore.

“That’s why I wanted to do it,” Caligiuri said. “To bring the secret deaths out, so that people can talk about it and realize this happens to people.”

Those interested in donating to AIDS research can email mross@nd.edu or go to www.amfar.org.