Courtesy of Arden Yum

Set in the backdrop of New York in the 1980s, Tony Kushner’s “Angels in America: Millennium Approaches” peers into the lives of eight characters and their different relationships to the AIDS/HIV epidemic, queerness and the American political era of McCarthyism and Reaganism. 

At Yale, the show — which doubles as a campus production and senior thesis project — will run from Feb. 28 to March 2. Though this play largely lives in the social and historical context of the ’80s, a large undertaking of the cast has been to draw parallels between the play’s reality and today, said Claire Donnellan ’24, the show’s director.  

“This play has a lot to say about contemporary American society,” Donnellan said. “There’s a monologue that the character Martin Heller gives, where he talks about U.S. politics, and how he’s envisioning things becoming a lot more conservative over the coming years. A lot of those things have actually come to pass, which is really scary … I think this play still has a lot to say about what it means to live in America and what it means to live in this country that claims to be a place of equality and freedom for all people, but really has yet to achieve those goals.”  

There are clear differences between the America of the 1980s and the America of today, said Carson White ’25, who is the dramaturg of the show. When audiences were watching the 1991 premiere of the play, most, if not all, would have known someone whose life had been “irrevocably altered” by the AIDS/HIV epidemic, said White. 

The AIDS/HIV epidemic is no longer the “plight of the white gay man,” she said. 

However, the heart of the play is deeply political, in ways that may resonate with today’s political landscape. 

“This play is a gay fantasia on national themes,” said White. “The play is about a moment of profound crisis in American politics, and we are amidst many of our own profound political crises today. Whether that is drag bans, intersecting the sum of the themes of the play, or the U.S. aid of genocide in Palestine or the recent news from Florida of students having to get a permission slip signed to read a book by a Black author … [“Angels in America”] is a deeply, deeply political play. The heart of that remains very active today.”

Since its debut,  Kushner’s original “Angels in America” has garnered critical acclaim and cemented its legacy as one of the most iconic plays of the 21st century. The play was adapted into an HBO miniseries in 2003, and its revival opened at the West End and Broadway in 2018. 

Among some of the play’s unchanging elements seem to be an ability to deeply relate to and resonate with queer bodies. The play was one of the few instances of “fulfilling” queer media, said Jordi Bertrán Ramírez ’24, who knew from his sophomore year that he would want to produce this play for his thesis.

Similarly, Donnellan’s first encounter with the play can be traced back to her high school years, when she chose to read this play for an independent reading project and was immediately “blown away” by it. “Angels in America: Millennium Approaches” has been a long time coming for both Donnellan and Bertrán Ramírez. For the duo, the production also serves as a thesis project in directing and acting, respectively. 

“I mean, this is one of the greatest plays ever written,” Donnellan said. “Especially as … a young, queer person in high school, I hadn’t come across a lot of media that actually dealt with what it meant to be queer in the U.S. and exploring that history in a serious and meaningful way. With the same sort of consequences and depth that straight relationships are normally treated with. That was something that was really powerful for me, and that was something that has fed my love for this play.” 

From weekly dramaturgy sessions to painstaking research on various aspects of production, the cast has worked to honor the historical and political intentions of the original, said White. 

The Yale rendition, however, also reflects the cast’s own relationship to the material, as well as their understanding of the play’s stakes and characters. 

For Victoria Pekel ’25, who plays The Angel, the show echoes images of illness she has seen in her own family. In his interpretation of Louis Ironson — a character that implicitly represents Tony Kushner’s own experiences, Dean Farella ’25 incorporated his own queerness and experiences in comedy, as a co-director of the sketch comedy group The Fifth Humour.

“In every iteration of the play or also in the HBO series, there’s kind of been like a false dichotomy, I think, set up between Louis and Prior, where Prior is this effeminate gay man and Louis kinda exists more on the masculine side of things. In the original Broadway version, the original actor, I think, definitely leaned into femininity in a way that more recent ones haven’t,” Farella said. “I’ve made this character my own in that although he is a deeply sad and insecure person, I think he also is extremely funny and finds the humor in such a dire situation that I then as a comedic actor try to incorporate into the role more.”

Experiencing homophobia as a queer person, Bertrán Ramírez said that he was used to changing — for reasons of safety, comfort or palatability. He had long viewed Prior as an “unabashed, untethered version” of a queer person — in ways that Bertrán Ramírez himself was not, said Bertrán Ramírez. 

Throughout the production process, Bertrán Ramírez said that his understanding of the character of Prior had shifted. It was not that the character of Prior was unaffected or had never experienced homophobia; Prior is a character who “amplifies himself in the face of adversity,” he said. 

“The difference between Prior and someone like me growing up was that Prior uses that and pushes against it,” Bertrán Ramírez said. “And his queerness, and the way that he presents it, is a form of rebellion against a community in a society that is telling him that the way he is is wrong … As someone who has experienced my fair share of homophobia and has been called slurs on the street for just being myself, it’s nice to embody someone that takes that in and throws it back by doubling down on their majesty.” 

While each cast member has a different relationship to the play, Pekel said that the cast felt a collective desire to handle the show with care, given the emotional weight of the story.  She also pointed to the additional “layer of dedication and care” given to the show, as it is a thesis project that required much dramaturgical and historical research.  

Adrien Rolet ’24 also described the show as  “extremely emotionally dense,” as an endeavor that required intense focus and attention to detail. Playing the role of Joseph, a closeted Mormon who struggles with his sexuality, Rolet had to learn to conserve his energy and take care of himself outside of emotionally intense scenes. 

I have to draw on everything inside of me to travel the arc of a performance, so finding ways to maintain high energy and attention for each run is a personal learning experience that I am trying to tackle,” Rolet said. “I have also found the depths of Joe’s catastrophic breakdowns extremely challenging to recover from — it is mentally taxing to live through those experiences, which, if left unaddressed, can bleed into my life outside of the theater.” 

As cast members noted in their interviews, the production isn’t an easy feat to accomplish. The show is longer than the average production, with a runtime of three and a half hours. Additionally, while “Angels in America: Millennium Approaches” centers around eight central characters, the play intentionally calls on actors to play minor roles, with some actors playing up to four different characters. 

As the title denotes, the play also introduces characters who are supernatural beings, such as angels or ghosts. The production relies on sound and lighting design to bring these fantastical elements of the story to life, said Donnellan. Lighting designer Emiliano Caceres Manzano ’26 said that collaboration between the sound and lighting team was important to highlight the tensions between the ordinariness of human life and the “spectacle” of supernatural beings. 

Sound designer James Han ’24 found inspiration in language and sound pertaining to the early Industrial Revolution — at the time, the novelty of big steam machinery and other inventions welcomed more magical, surrealist interpretations from the community. Han’s design choices attempted to “blur” the boundaries between the industrial idea of progress and the world of the supernatural. 

“Progress feels like … breaking the natural boundaries,” said Han. “The hope is that when we think about modern America, there’s a huge sense of technological and economic progress. And we are kind of these infinitesimally small agents in it, kind of passengers who are unwillingly and unwittingly participating in a progress that might move beyond us. I really hope the sound design, in particular, makes you feel the sense of scale of the world, and also your somewhat small place in it, and kind of forces you to reckon with that.”

While these multiple costume changes and paranormal elements may make “Angels in America” a daunting endeavor, the large scale of this play was an attractive feat for Bertrán Ramírez. It offered him a chance to “go big or go home” on the stage, something that isn’t always encouraged or possible in the world of Yale theater.

When Bertrán Ramírez first read “Angels in America,” the play made him feel “seen” in a way that he hadn’t felt before. In describing the play, Bertrán Ramírez ironically noted that the play was about the characters’ inability to see each other in a time that was “horrifically difficult” to be seen. Even amid the large scale of the production, Bertrán Ramírez said that the play ultimately emphasizes the simple, human desire for attention. 

“Everybody in this play is fighting for attention, right? In one way or another, this play is about fighting to be seen,” Bertrán Ramírez said. “Our play feels alive and active because we’re not wallowing in self-pity. We’re constantly pushing and fighting for something.”

As both White and Farrella have questioned, perhaps America has not progressed as much as it thinks. Yet, the production seems to suggest that there are certain things to be gained when looking back at the past. 

Donnellan hopes that audiences will not only recognize the political parallels of the play and today’s world, but will also identify with moments of hope and resistance of this era. 

“There’s a really beautiful moment at the end of the play where Prior, one of the characters, is terrified about the impending arrival of this Angel. And he yells, ‘No fear, find the anger.’ And he leans on his identity as a gay man in America, and having been able to live and thrive as a gay man in America,” Donnellan said.  “And [he says] if I can do that, I can resist whatever impending insanity is about to crash through my ceiling. I think that is just a really beautiful moment of resistance, that I think is at the heart of this play. It’s not just about tragedy, but it’s about the way in which we continue to live and fight in the face of that tragedy.”

“Angels in America” is set to be performed at the Theater, Dance and Performance Studies Black Box.

Correction, March 2: In a previous version of this article, Jordi Bertrán Ramírez’s name was spelled incorrectly. The article has been updated with the correct spelling.