Despite being three hours long, Millennium Approaches, the first part of Tony Kushner’s epic and much-awarded play Angels in America: A Gay Fantasia on National Themes, always feels like extended exposition for the second part, Perestroika. But never has exposition had so much meaningful poetry, anger and dread about the future, as hinted in the first part’s subtitle.
It’s not only the millennium that’s approaching, it’s — as seen by the character Harper in one of her pill-induced hallucinations — as if the whole world is coming to an end.
That sense of urgency is an important tone that permeates Angels, and it is accomplished beautifully in the current revival by Uptown Players, directed by Cheryl Denson at the Kalita Humphreys Theater. That Frank Lloyd Wright-designed venue is where the first North Texas production happened when the Dallas Theater Center took on both parts in the mid-’90s.
It has been 25 years since Millennium Approaches first appeared in San Francisco in 1991. Two years later it was on Broadway, followed by Perestroika. Both parts won the Tony Award for best play in 1993 and 1994, respectively, and Millennium won the Pulitzer Prize for drama in 1993.
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Locally, both parts were seen at Stage West in 1997 and 1998, and the Fort Worth Opera did the opera adaptation in 2008. In 2003, HBO’s fantastic movie adaptation introduced the works to new audiences.
The play, which takes place over four months in 1985 and 1986, is in some ways a time capsule of the early stages of the AIDS crisis, but its scope transcends that. In this current, hotly debated American political climate, so many of its themes — loyalty to self and country, awareness of “the other” — are still relevant and timeless.
Denson has assembled an ace cast, each carrying out detailed character work. Garret Storms is the HIV-infected Prior and David Meglino is his boyfriend, Louis, who is not strong enough to stick it out with Prior. Marianne Galloway is the Mormon wife Harper, whose lawyer husband Joe (Kyle Igneczi) is grappling with his sexuality.
David Lugo plays real-life lawyer Roy Cohn, who was anti-gay but gay himself (he was a mentor to Donald Trump); Pam Dougherty plays Joe’s mother, Hannah, and several other roles; Walter Lee is Prior’s effeminate friend Belize, a nurse, and delivers one of the most honest portrayals I’ve seen in that role; and Emily Scott Banks is a nurse and the Angel, who plays a much larger part in Perestroika. (Most of the actors play multiple roles.) When she is seen as the angel at the end, with effects by the company Flying By Foy, it’s a heart-pounding entrance and an ominous look at what’s ahead.
What’s astonishing about Denson’s production is how smoothly it transitions between myriad scenes, some overlapping and others happening just as another is ending. That’s thanks to multiple entryways through a series of sliding, fortresslike panels designed by H. Bart McGeehon, who also handles video projections.
Paired with Aaron Johansen’s lighting, Marco Salinas’ sound and Suzi Cranford’s costumes, it’s among the best-looking shows from a theater that consistently excels at the visuals.
The stigma of HIV has changed greatly in 30 years — it hasn’t been a death sentence for at least half of that time. But the effect on its victims and their family members and communities lingers, as do the even more profound questions in Millennium Approaches.
It’s a challenging endeavor that Uptown has been building up to, and now that we know how well it can be executed, the second part is already on the list of the most anticipated shows of 2017.