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    Categories: Theater

Revisiting ‘Angels in America’

Tom Story, left, as Prior and Jon Hudson Odom as Belize. (Photo courtesy Olney Theatre Center)

‘Angels in America’
 
 
Part I Millennium Approaches
 
 
Part II: Perestroika
 
 
Through Oct. 30
 
 
Round House Theatre and Olney Theatre Center
At Round House Theatre
 
 
4545 East-West Highway, Bethesda, Md.
 
 
240-644-1100
 

Like many great works, “Angels in America” comes from the urgent need to tell a story.

Gay playwright Tony Kushner’s sprawling early ‘90s masterpiece is centered on a gay man with AIDS in mid-‘80s New York (during both the Reagan years and the height of the AIDS crisis), a dangerous and frustrating but ultimately galvanizing time for gay people. He tells an undeniably powerful story that resonates with audiences. And while a few productions in some pockets outside of New York were met with resistance, the Pulitzer Prize- and Tony-winning “Angels” soon took its place in the canon of great 20th century drama.

“Angels” is a play told in two parts: Millennium Approaches” and “Perestroika.” It’s a work whose relevancy remains intact (particularly in this campaign season) and whose artistic merit is secured. Currently Round House Theatre and Olney Theatre Center have joined forces with a much anticipated 25th anniversary co-production. The two parts will run in rotating repertory at Round House’s space in Bethesda.

Both epic and intimate, “Angels” follows the disintegrating relationships of two couples: the intellectual Jewish Louis Ironson and his WASP lover Prior Walter who has recently been diagnosed with AIDS; and Joe Pitt, a closeted young Mormon lawyer, and his valium-addicted wife Harper Pitt. Thrown into their lives are a cast of characters including the notorious closeted powerbroker Roy Cohn who is dying from AIDS, the ghost of alleged Cold War spy Ethel Rosenberg, a best friend, the concerned mother, an anonymous trick and an angel who chooses Prior to deliver her urgent message to humanity.  Reinvented as a prophet, Prior takes command of his destiny and shows great courage in the face of seeming death.

Local out actors Tom Story and Jon Hudson Odom who are playing Prior and his best friend Belize, an ex-drag queen turned registered nurse, in the Round House/Olney production agree there’s both a delight and responsibility in performing Kushner’s play. The cast mates and friends who first met doing “Our Town” at Ford’s Theater also share an admiration for each other’s acting abilities.

“‘Angels’ has always been part of my theatrical education,” Story says. “I know the play well and have long wanted to play Prior. It’s a great part. He’s funny, fierce and full of rage.

But the part comes with challenges too, he adds.

“In first scene he reveals a KS lesion, so he’s sick throughout the show. To be sick on stage that long is hard acting wise. Also, the length (two parts in seven hours) and emotionality of the play are pretty massive.”

Story, who doesn’t pinpoint his age but admits he’s older than his 30-ish character, talks about tapping into the fear surrounding the AIDS crisis.

“I came of age in a world where sex could kill you,” he says. “And though I wasn’t an adult in the ‘80s, I’ve heard firsthand accounts of that time from older gay friends. ‘Angels’ serves in part as a memorial to a time when AIDS was essentially a death sentence and the government didn’t give a care. But the play is also very much alive in the present. HIV/AIDS is still a problem. The hate evidenced in the Orlando shootings. By doing the play we are choosing not being silent.”

Story says the work is not meant to be taken casually.

“Going back to the era evokes emotions and exasperation for some and is a history lesson for others. That said, it’s brilliantly plotted and the language is extraordinary. The characters are all real people but also high-level thinkers, so the ideas are deep and rich and complicated.”

Like Story, Odom was already familiar with “Angels,” perhaps in an even more intimate way.

“I’d seen the HBO adaptation the year before coming out. I remember watching and relating to characters and feeling validated for the first time as a gay man in the community. They were talking about things we weren’t talked about lot where I grew up — the Chicago suburb of Wheaton, a Guinness Book entry for having the most churches per capita.”

For Odom, who is African-American, Belize was one of the first gay black characters he encountered.

“I saw myself in him and what I wanted to be like him in some ways — his confidence and the way he carries himself, his strength and compassion. In a way he’s the moral center of the play, always administering to others. We don’t know a lot about his personal life other than he had been a drag queen and he has a man uptown.”

To help prepare for the part he’s been watching TV’s “RuPaul’s Drag Race” and “Paris is Burning,” the 1990 documentary on New York black drag culture, has proved a huge help. He also bleached his hair blonde.

“Belize is dream role. A part I wanted to play and knew I would at some point in my life,” Odom says. “With this play comes a deep sense of history. I feel humbled and grateful to be a part of it. In many ways it’s really a love letter to gay people.”