Set in New York City in 1985, “Angels” follows the story of Roy Cohn, a politically powerful right-wing lawyer, in denial about his diagnosis of AIDS, while his protégé, Joe, a Republican Mormon, struggles with a Valium-addicted wife. Meanwhile, Prior, an ailing gay man with AIDS, begins to hear messages from a supernatural being.
“Millennium Approaches” was first performed in 1990 in Los Angeles as a workshop and premiered on stage in May 1991 in San Francisco. It debuted on Broadway in 1993 and since then, both parts of “Angels in America: A Gay Fantasia on National Themes” have been produced globally, winning awards ranging from Tonys to a Pulitzer Prize.
Actor Benjamin Pelteson plays Louis, Prior’s boyfriend who abandons him and later begins a relationship with Joe.
He said all of the roles in “Millennium Approaches” have their own challenges, especially Louis.
“Every part is different and there are a lot of things about [Louis] I understood from the beginning,” he said. “It took a lot of work to understand what it was like to be living at one of the high points of this crisis and to be dealing with AIDS or a partner who is dealing with AIDS. It hits pretty close to home in a lot of ways. All of the parts are really fantastically well written. Each of them have their own kind of traps. Some are more difficult than others. The Angel is one of the trickier parts to play. She has to play a number of different characters, and that has its own challenges that are unique.”
Pelteson noted that, 20 years after the play made its debut, it draws longtime fans as well as people new to the story.
“I’m sure that there will be people who will come to see it who have seen the HBO version or the recent production in New York,” he said. “I think what we’re doing is quite different. The staging and the interpretation are pretty fresh. I think even if people were to come to this having seen other versions, they would really be seeing something new. I think ‘Angels’ also continues to attract an audience both in the gay community and elsewhere. It really does continue to speak to what’s happening politically now in the country. There will be a mix of audiences but it will be enthusiastic in either case. Bottom line is this is a great piece of writing. It’s one of the best plays that was written in the last 100 years in this country. It’s seen continued life in places like the Wilma, which embraces politically minded and challenging work. The commitment to a longer run of this was really necessary on their part. You can’t really do [just] half the play. So to really take this on, you have to commit to doing both plays.”
Wilma Theater presents “Angels in America, Part One: Millennium Approaches” through July 1, 265 S. Broad St. The Wilma Theater is also participating in AIDS Education Month during the month of June, sponsored by Philadelphia FIGHT. For a complete list of AIDS Education Month events, visit www.fight.org.
A number of special, behind-the-scenes Onstage Conversations with the Wilma’s artistic staff will accompany the production of “Angels in America.” For more information or tickets, visit www.wilmatheater.org.
Larry Nichols can be reached at email@example.com.