In the 1980s and ’90s, gay men spent hours visiting physicians, hospitals and hospices. We had blood drawn from our veins, waited for test results and started taking pills that helped us feel better — until they made us feel worse. We received phone calls from doctors who said, at best, our bodies could fight the disease for 10 years after an HIV diagnosis.
We weren’t invited back home. But if we did insist on a visit, out of a desperate need for comfort, some of us were asked to eat off of paper plates and to drink out of paper cups. Our families said that they wanted to rule out any possibility of contamination. Negative men rejected positive ones the way the Star-Bellied Sneetches rejected their unmarked brethren. A hierarchy divided the community into the blessed and the damned.
Tony Kushner’s play Angels in America: A Gay Fantasia on National Themes (through July 22, at Berkeley Rep) opened in San Francisco in 1991 in the midst of that cultural conversation about the AIDS epidemic, a conversation that regularly erupted into a conflagration of warring ideologies. For those of us becoming inured to death and who had to accept the idea of it for ourselves or our friends and lovers, the arts often reflected back a sense of weariness and resignation. We would die but at least someone would preserve our memory on film or in literature.
Silverlake Life: The View From Here aired on PBS in 1993 after the deaths of “longtime companions” Tom Joslin and Mark Massi — they wouldn’t have been allowed to marry each other back then. The documentary offered realistic and therefore terrifying images of their bodies wasting away, robbed of their vitality. They filmed their agonizing deterioration to the audience like an offering prayer, and as a warning shot from the front lines of the battle. They said plainly, directly, remorsefully, this is what it looks and feels like to die of AIDS.
Craig Lucas’ Longtime Companion arrived in movie theaters in 1989 as a eulogy for the previous decade and the men who’d died during it. And Paul Monette would write Love Alone: Eighteen Elegies for Rog, poems for his partner Roger Horwitz, before dying himself of AIDS six years later at the age of 49. But in Larry Kramer’s play The Normal Heart, you heard something different in the voice of Ned Weeks — the playwright’s fictional alter ego. You heard a caterwaul. He resisted death by refusing to take a passive stance. But Kramer was, if not reviled, then thought of as a Cassandra-like figure, an impolitic prophet (the intervening years and Ryan Murphy’s 2014 film of the play have since ameliorated that misapprehension).
Set during Ronald Reagan’s administration, Kushner’s play also contains a prophet but a more ambivalent one. Prior Walter (Randy Harrison) has already contracted AIDS when Angels in America begins. Louis (Benjamin T. Ismail), his lover, has not. When Prior’s illness starts to become debilitating, Louis steadily withdraws from him and then leaves him for Joe (Danny Binstock), a closeted, married, Mormon Republican. As in The Normal Heart, Kushner depicts a gay community that’s skilled at dividing against itself. But he also examines the systemic, outside influences — societal, political, religious — that encourage those divisions.
To only look at the love triangle though, or quadrangle with the inclusion of Joe’s wife Harper (Bethany Jillard), is to focus on just a few stars among the dozens that make up Kushner’s brilliant theatrical constellation. Berkeley Rep’s revival of Angels in America runs a solid seven hours, with a two-and-a-half hour break between Part One: Millennium Approaches and Part Two: Perestroika. It’s an emotionally satisfying play because of, and not despite, its length. Whether or not their story ends happily or unhappily, each character achieves, and conveys to the audience, a sense of completion.
It’s fitting, then, that Tony Taccone, the co-director of the original production of the play, has done a masterful job in his direction of the pacing and staging. There are so many moving parts in the play, the characters and plots and subplots keep coming and going. What prevents chaos from taking over is the emphatic foregrounding of the actors. Their dialogues and parallel storylines take place on pared-down sets. We see and hear them with an increasing amount of clarity as we move deeper inside their fantasies and predicaments.
When The Angel (Francesca Faridany) descends from Heaven to break through Prior’s bedroom ceiling, she announces herself with a repeated “I,” uttered as a plangent, staccato note. This is her first incantation, “I I I I / Am the Bird of America, the Bald Eagle, / Continental Principality, / LUMEN PHOSPHOR FLUOR CANDLE! / I unfold my leaves, Bright steel / In salutation, open sharp before you.” The Angel arrives after Louis is gone. And although she is more than an unconscious wish-fulfillment, replacing what Prior has lost, and more than compensatory companionship and divine consolation, per the script’s cast description, the same actress also plays his nurse.
Before the AIDS cocktail started to work, before the T-cell counts started to rise, before family members opened their doors again, before a man would touch you or kiss your positive lips, the solitary patient, like Prior, feverish and sweating his soul right out of his skin, longed for an angel to take hold of his body and release him upwards, away from his polluted bloodstream, until he arrived at some acceptable version of Heaven where he might be loved. Tony Kushner imagined that angel, a balm to heal the afflicted and the un-afflicted alike.
Angels in America: A Gay Fantasia on National Themes, through July 22 at Berkeley Rep, 2015 Addison St., Berkeley. $50-$100; 510-647-2949 or berkeleyrep.org