Portland Playhouse nails Angels in America
By PAUL HAIST, Jewish Review
article created on: 2011-12-15T00:00:00
Tony Kushner’s Pulitzer Prize-winning play “Angels in America, Part 1: Millennium Approaches” is not a Jewish story, but it incorporates some key Jewish elements that make the play of special interest to Jewish audiences.
First, there is Kushner’s Jewish consciousness that permeates the play and which Jews in the audience will not miss as a persistent reminder throughout the three-hour drama of the responsibility of tikkun olam—healing the world.
Louis Ironson, one of the play’s central characters, is a deeply self-aware Jew who struggles to come to terms with his failure to accept the responsibility of tikkun olam when he abandons his dying lover.
Roy Cohn, another character in the play—yes, the Roy Cohn who grew to fame or infamy alongside Sen. Joe McCarthy—is, of course, Jewish.
And Prior Walter, Ironson’s lover who is dying of AIDS, speaks of his childhood encounter and subsequent lifelong obsession with the biblical story of Jacob wrestling with the angel—freighted in this play with intimations of intimacy, after which the angel tells Jacob—although this line is not in the play, “Your name will no longer be Jacob, but Israel, because you have struggled with God and with men and have overcome.”
“Angels in America,” which premiered at San Francisco’s Eureka Theatre in 1991, opened in Portland Dec. 10 at the World Trade Center Theater, a production of Portland Playhouse. There were preview performances on Dec. 8 and 9. The play runs through New Year’s Eve.
Portland Playhouse founding Artistic Director Brian Weaver, a Mennonite alumnus of Brandeis University, directs this production, which features a slate of well-known, gifted and mostly local Equity actors.
Weaver said that although the play is set in 1985, long before anti-retroviral drugs made HIV something of a manageable condition and when the virus routinely led to AIDS and death, the play remains timely for the more universal questions at its core.
“I think the play is most relevant to audiences today in terms of the question about change,” said Weaver.
“Is personal change possible? Can our society as a whole evolve? Is it possible to cause real political change in our world today? Are we active participants or do we just sit back and watch what happens?” asked Weaver.
“These are great questions for us in our 20s and 30s to be struggling with today,” he said.
Noah Jordan plays the pivotal role of Louis Ironson. Jordan is a seasoned New York actor with a growing number of Portland credits including “Metamorphosis” and “Assassins” at Artists Repertory Theatre.
He is spot on
throughout the play,
and nowhere more so than when he delivers the long monologue on racism, anti-Semitism and more in Act 3. It would have been a soliloquy if actor Berwick Haynes’ Belize was not seated across the table from him fighting to get a word in edgewise. Kushner was at the top of his form when he wrote this section and Jordan’s handling of the challenging piece is astonishingly good. The audience at this point was riveted by both the amazing script and the amazing performance.
Louis and Kushner are brilliant (Louis is the character most like the playwright), and Jordan marches in step with both the playwright and his character, and, when it is required, he soars with them.
When Louis walks out on his lover Prior, played with penetrating insight, sensitivity, humanity and humor by Jordan’s close friend Wade McCollum, he is fully aware of his profound cruelty, but he can’t stop, not even in the name of the love that burns in his heart.
“Louis is a worrier,” said Jordan. “He seeks to find intellectual justification for his feelings and potential actions.”
Louis is eventually able to let himself mostly off the hook by coming to a better understating of himself.
“Eventually he realizes that though he may not live up to his highest ideals, a life cannot be judged on one action alone, but that one must consider ‘the questions and shape of a life,’” said Jordan, quoting Louis.
“By the end of the play, I think Louis has taken responsibility for his actions and is at least on his way to forgiving himself.”
Playing a character whose central act is such a monumental moral failure is challenging.
“The main challenge for me in playing Louis was to find compassion for him, to fall in love with him and, in so doing, allow the opportunity for the audience to do the same,” said Jordan.
“It would be easy, as an actor, to indulge in his confusion, weakness and grief,” he added. “It’s my job to understand where he is coming from and to justify his actions in a positive way. It is my hope that the audience might root for him rather than judge him or pity him.”
Jordan called his opportunity to do this play “a dream come true,” especially for the opportunity to work opposite McCollum, which he called “a joy.”
He likes his role, as well as the play.
“Every once in a while a role comes along that I feel I was really meant to play. This is one of those roles,” he said. “The sum total of my life experience has added up to being able to share myself in the telling of this very important story. For that, I am very grateful.”
A big part of his life experience is his own Jewishness, which, he said, “significantly informs” his portrayal of Louis.
Jordan is the son of New York Jews. His grandparents are of Israeli, Polish and Russian descent. He said his Jewish family and growing up in the Jewish community “all contributed to the treasure chest I am drawing from in creating this beautiful and flawed character, Louis Ironson.”
Finally, no discussion of the Jewish elements in the Portland Playhouse production of “Angels” would be complete without acknowledging Ebbe Roe Smith’s almost bigger-than-life Roy Cohn.
Smith shows us the real Roy Cohn, a man defined by a plangently bitter pathos, a roaring disregard of ethical norms motivated, one suspects, as much by a love for his vision of America as for his lust for power and influence.
Smith shows us Cohn’s massive chutzpah, his unrelenting arrogance and hypocrisy, and his brilliance, as well as his tragedy—his unwillingness or inability ever to give up his lie.
Those who remember Cohn’s dogged pursuit of the execution of Ethel Rosenberg after her and her husband’s conviction on espionage charges related to the transfer of U.S. atom bomb secrets to the Soviet Union may find it satisfying when Ethel’s ghost appears as Cohn’s escort out of this world when he succumbs to the ravages of AIDS.
“Angels in America” is a hard story. But Kushner’s sensitivity coupled with Weaver’s thoughtful direction and the shining contribution from every actor in this production make for an evening of excellent theater.
Amid all the tragedy, there is an abundance of brightness, humor and hope at this time on our calendar when we celebrate the miracle of light.
Just the Facts
Ticket prices range from $28 to $32. There are group, senior and student discounts. Buy tickets and learn more online at PortlandPlayhouse.org. Telephone the theater at 503-488-5822.
There will be a special New Year’s Eve event benefiting the Portland Playhouse and Our House, a non-profit organization providing vital services to low-income people living with HIV/AIDS. Appetizers, beer, wine and a midnight champagne toast are included in the $100 ticket price.