My first encounter with Angels in America, like so many theatre people, was in college. During my graduate school course aptly entitled "Great Roles" I was handed the role of Harper in the infamous "You're a homo" scene.
The time spent with the play and that scene years ago in school was the beginning and end of my experience with Angels. I've never seen it staged, never read it again and never seen the acclaimed HBO version.
If I'm being really honest, the reason I bought tickets was because I felt I had to-like it was some sort of theatrical rite of passage. It felt a bit like signing up to run a distance race—I was doing it more for the credit and less for the experience itself. Not the greatest mindset, admittedly.
So I went into it rather glibly. I settled into my seat prior to the rise of curtain for Millennium Approaches and set my notebook on my lap to document my stream of consciousness throughout the first play. For some reason this felt like the right way to document my experience.
Here's what that looked like:
- Wow, good job TDF. These are pretty decent tickets.
- Okay. Either I'm in denial about my winter weight gain or these seats are smaller than usual.
- Why am I so surprised that this theatre is packed?
- Yes, girl behind me, 99% of people with a theatre degree have been in an Angels scene. You are not unique. All the Harper's in the house say HEEEEYY.
- Either everyone in here is in the industry or theatre is making a comeback.
- How long is part one again? Like seventy-one hundred hours, right?
- No wait, that's the second one. The second one is longer.
- I wonder what she's going to do about the angel.
- How much money did I spend on that wine?
- Man I love it when a show starts with a curtain down.
- I wonder if they guys next to me will notice if I pick my wedgie. It's really bothering me and I don't want to be thinking about my butt during my first Angels in America experience.
- What do I care if they notice? It's not like either of them want to sleep with me.
- Okay, that's better. STAY, underwear. STAY.
- WHO ARE THESE PEOPLE WHO WAIT UNTIL THE LIGHTS GO DOWN TO TURN OFF THEIR CELL PHONES?! YOU KNEW WHAT WAS GOING TO HAPPEN GUYS.
- I forgot about the gender bending supporting characters - crap, this is great!
- Yes, we clap for Nathan Lane's entrance. C'mon folks. I thought you were in the industry.
- Okay, Joe is HOT but about as wooden as they come. Listen and respond, dude. Please.
- Well look at you, Andrew Garfield. Look at you go.
- Wait-did she intentionally block them outside of their light?
- Oh, Louis. LOUIS. Louis, you little show stealer you.
- Dear Marianne, thank you for acknowledging and playing the humor in this show. This is a FUNNY show.
- OH MY GOD THESE SHADOWS! This lighting. The design elements are characters unto themselves.
- Oh okay, cool. There's fire on stage.
- Wait; was that Steven Spielberg line in the original script?
- I'm not sure I understand the set yet, but I really think I love it.
- Lookitchew, Louis and Belize scene. This is what presence and listening look like onstage. Hey, Joe-come watch this a sec.
- Is Louis losing his lines or is he just that present? Oh, wait-I bet TK changed something last minute. That guy!
- Why isn't Joe talking on a pay phone? We can have a trashcan and park bench but we can't have a payphone?
- There are lines in this play that send chills up my spine.
- Oh Nathan Lane that little skip you just gave as one of the Priors gives me LIFE.
- Kid next to me, if you fidget spinner your Playbill one more time I will fidget spinner YOU.
- Waiiiiitttttt the set is mooooving. Oh man, and now - the SNOW and the light and ohhhhhhhh this is exquisite.
- Dear Denise Gough: thank you for not making Harper precious.
- Look at them go and manipulate this proscenium theatre. I almost forget I'm in a traditional space.
- Wait, I thought Joe's mom was from Salt Lake City. Why does she sound like she's from South London? No wait. Scotland. No wait, Ireland. WHAT?
- Okay, Tony Kushner. Be as obstinate and demanding and unbending as you want. You gave us this.
- The build up to this angel entrance is mad.
- HOW is she going to handle it?
- Oh. OH. OH....
- I did NOT see that coming.
- Where's my damn Kleenex?
- Thank you, company bow!
- The bartender was right. This is beyond inspiring.
- Oh yeah, that's right. I forgot.
- This-all this-from the script to the concept to the execution to this moment in the afterglow. This why Angels is exalted.
Walking out of the theatre after Part I was like going home after a really good first date. It had been so much fun, the time flew by and I was really, really excited to go back the next night. I had every intention of approaching Perestroika in the same lighthearted, "check this off the list" manner. I definitely wasn't prepared for what happened next.
When Angels in America: Perestroika ended and the audience started filing out I stayed in my seat with my head down for a few minutes before leaving. I stayed to avoid the crowds since I was fighting a losing battle to contain my tears. I knew at any minute the tears in the corner of my eyes were going to morph into body—wracking sobs. On the train ride home I bit my lip and wiped my nose and tried to distract myself enough to make it to the safety of my home before losing it.
When I did finally walk in the door, it was barely shut behind me before I collapsed on the floor, consumed with tears. This was dramatic even for someone like me with a, well, a flair for the dramatic. I've certainly been moved to tears by theatre before but this was different.
All the previous glibness was gone. I felt changed. Like something got into my bones and transformed me on a cellular level kind of changed. Like a fuckin' angel just crashed into my ceiling.
I'd clearly forgotten how everything is in this piece: light and dark, present and past, fire and water, reality and fantasy, above and below, love and hate, hope and hopelessness, life and death. All of these things live in a million stunning little moments that lead you to the very end and a final moment takes your breath away from the sheer humanity of it all. I don't want to rob anyone of the experience I had by spoiling any of the sweet surprises, the exquisite staging or the heartbreaking acting.
But Tony Kushner's words are pure poetry that elicited collective gasps and murmurs of recognition from a theatre full of strangers experiencing the same thing together, but differently. Marianne Elliott's non-debatable genius and understanding of the script gives us two productions that can't even really be explained—they must be experienced. Quite simply, the production as a whole-from the genius script to the creative and technical teams have manifested a brilliant theatrical alchemy that some of us will be lucky enough to witness.
In the years since my own Harper/Joe scene and time spent with this exquisite script, I'd obviously forgotten why this show is historical not only in regard to LGBTQ theatre but also for modern theatre as a whole.
But in the life-filled scene seven hours in the making, and oh so worth the time—there is a moment. A single, final moment so full of hope, life and light that I suddenly remembered. I remembered how Angels in America leaves you inspired, wrecked and wanting.
Wanting MORE LIFE.