Courtesy of Nina Goodheart

Tony Kushner’s “Angels in America: Millennium Approaches” begins with a funeral. Standing alone on a dimly lit stage, prayer shawl draped over his shoulders, a rabbi gives a Yiddish-flavored eulogy for a woman he never met, but whom he nonetheless knew perfectly. She was a Jewish immigrant from the old country, the rabbi explains, “not a person but a whole kind of person.” She made the great voyage across the ocean and fought tooth and nail so that “you would not grow up here, in this strange place.” The rabbi continues: “You do not live in America. No such place exists.” It’s a melting pot in which nothing melts. And that’s its beauty: people have the freedom to be different.

The language of categories — of nation, race, religion, sexual orientation and diagnosis — runs throughout “Angels in America”. What does it mean to be gay rather than merely someone who sleeps with people of the same sex? What does it mean to believe in Love, but to be repulsed by the failing body of your beloved? What does it mean to believe in Justice, but to abandon your lover as he sleeps, wasting away in his hospital bed? What does it mean to believe in the Law, but to ignore it when expedient? “Angels in America” wrestles with these questions of interpretation in a fashion that might well be called Talmudic — and indeed much of the play takes place in a legal setting: Manhattan’s Second Circuit Court of Appeals and the offices of Roy M. Cohn, a hotshot lawyer and a manly man who unexpectedly died of AIDS in 1986. (Cohn was a historical personage, protege of Joseph McCarthy and a mentor to Donald Trump.)

At the center of Kushner’s play are two couples, one gay, one straight. Louis (Alex Swanson ’18) is a lowly typist at the courthouse, and a New York Jew. His partner is Prior (Gilberto Saenz ’19), a WASP and a trust fund baby who can trace his lineage back 32 generations — or 34, if you count the illegitimate children. They’ve been living together for four years when, at the funeral — which turns out to be for Louis’s grandmother — Prior reveals that he has AIDS. Immediately, Louis gets cold feet. Illness doesn’t comport with his worldview, with his “neo-Hegelian” sense of progress. “Maybe vomit … and sores and disease … really frighten him, maybe … he isn’t so good with death.” It’s only a matter of time before he leaves — and in a gesture that becomes familiar to the audience, uses ideas to justify cruelty.

At the same time as their drama unfolds, so does that of senior law clerk Joe Pitt (Jared Michaud ’19) and his wife Harper (Eleanor Slota ’17). Joe is tired and absent from his marriage; his wife is agoraphobic, and spends her days at home popping Valium and hallucinating. Cohn (Kai Nugent ’20) has major ties to the Reagan administration and wants Joe to be his man on the inside, so he arranges a job for Joe in the Department of Justice and pressures him to accept the position. As a religious Mormon and an explicitly ethical person, Joe struggles to balance his loyalty to Roy and his distaste with corruption. His faith has also taught him to disapprove of his own urges. When Harper finally voices doubts about her husband’s sexuality, Joe’s reply is cagey: “Does it make any difference? That I might be one thing deep within, no matter how wrong or ugly that thing is, so long as I have fought, with everything I have, to kill it.” Again, ideas are wielded to deny human nature.  But as more and more pressure comes from Cohn, and Harper takes a turn for the worse, Joe can’t sustain the performance of straightness any longer.

This production — a senior project in directing for Johnson and in acting for Slota — is an ambitious and engaging take on Kushner’s massive work. Its scope and complexity are reminiscent of a great novel — as in Tolstoy, multiple plotlines unfold simultaneously and expansively, bringing the viewer on the separate but related emotional journeys, and mixing fiction and history in a way that is at once deeply moving and thought-provoking. But, like a Russian novel, the show is long: the running time pushes three hours, and sometimes the energy drags.

Kushner’s subtitle is “a gay fantasia on national themes,” and, though the play is decidedly real — and is about the way reality challenges theory — at times it does unfold like a dream, particularly when we experience Harper’s Valium-induced trips and Prior’s fever dreams and, at the very end, the apocalyptic intervention of the angel. Johnson’s set is spare, little more than a raised wooden platform. Yet the very austerity of the design — inspired by Jerzy Grotowski’s minimalist “theater of the poor” — allows for an extraordinary intimacy: Every interaction between the actors has a kind of nakedness. Their talent and their genuinely moving performances are allowed to stand for themselves. Following Kushner’s instructions, the cast also doubles as the crew, moving a table and two chairs and setting props, constructing the illusion of theater before your very eyes. The transparency of this production, the primacy of its characters and their bodies over spectacle, makes its critique of ideology even more effective.

“Angels” was written in the early ’90s in response to the trauma of the AIDS epidemic of the ’80s; it emerges from a very specific political moment, when Reagan held the White House and, as one of the play’s characters says, there was the “dawning of a genuinely American political personality.” But this play, in its insistence on the embodied humanity of each of its characters, disproves the possibility of a normative American identity. As the rabbi says, there is no one America. Kushner stipulates that his rabbi be played by a woman (Anya Markowitz ’17), and writes in a critique of his own racial politics in a long duet between Louis, Kushner’s analogue, and Belize (Tarek Ziad ’20). But Johnson pushes the script even further, intentionally defying the racial boundaries drawn by the play. “Casting a Mexican-American man in the role [of Prior] brings the conversation of immigration into the present,” she wrote. “What happens to Cohn when he’s played by a young black man in 2017, months after we elected Cohn’s client and mentee, an infamous racist and bigot, to the highest office in our country?”

In defamiliarizing categories, and making abstractions concrete in unexpected ways, the play pushes the audience to consider what these ideas actually mean. Though Johnson and Slota couldn’t have predicted the results of last November’s election when they chose the play, it takes on new resonance and new importance, at the dawn of the Trump Era, when minorities find themselves facing a renewed threat of reductive essentialism in the name of an America that for some reason doesn’t include them.

Contact Max Norman at max.norman@yale.edu .