Portland Playhouse’s ‘Angels in America: Millennium Approaches’ – a live review

Wade McCollum as Prior Walter (L) with Noah Jordan as Louis Ironson in the Portland Playhouse's 'Angels in America.' Photo by Owen Carey.

Tony Kushner’s epic play about the AIDS crisis in the 80s, Angels in America: Millennium Approaches, is all about juxtapositions, and the Portland Playhouse does this expertly. We wonder if the tropes presented in this production remain relevant and Director Brian Weaver’s 8 person cast proves that it is. You can hear what Weaver and principal actor Wade McCollum have to say on the continued relevancy of the Angels, as well as AIDS in the 21st century, in an interview from last week.

On one side is the closeted and vicious Ray Cohn, played by Ebbe Roe Smith, lawyer for all the big names on the right, and on the other, Prior Walter (McCollum), an eloquent gay man whose partner, Louis (Noah Jordan), leaves him. Both are Cohn and Walter are dying of AIDS. But though Cohn is a classic villain and Walter a relatable (if not wholly classic) hero, both script and performances provide the nuance so imperative in this story. Ultimately, Cohn seems pitiable and Walter powerful.

Smith and McCollum portray these two opposites sincerely, though a bit opposite of other productions. For all the spite spewing from Cohn’s mouth Smith plays him as slightly understated, while McCollum swings Walter to the very pinnacle of intensity. This works surprisingly well to tenderize Cohn, which is more important when just doing Part 1 without Part 2. For McCollum, playing Walter was a chance to be the epitome of dramatic and very physical, moving, at times, like a dancer. To one not used to the intimacy the stage provides, or a play with magical realistic moments of Angels, this can seem overdone at first. But by the time Walter is weak and sick in his hospital bed it starts to make sense, creating a bridge between the fantastic and the quotidian elements of the play.

And though this ends up being a story largely about the inner pysches of men, the punctuation of female stage time is quite well done. Both Lorraine Bahr and Gretchen Corbett give good performances as multiple characters, including the angel, and Nikki Weaver plays a perfect Harper, balanced on the edge of insanity and sorrow with just the right amount of cute quirk appeal. Berwick Haynes is an affable Belize. And, both Noah Jordan as Louis Ironson and Chris Harder as Joe Pitt are sympathetic and flawed humans. More than just a foil to the good and evil they remind us all of our own fallibility.

Ultimately, discussion of Angels in America might lead one towards the conclusion that AIDS is still a relevant topic in American culture and politics, but it is the emotion portrayed in this production that will convince you to care that it is.

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