To be clear: The staging of Tony Kushner’s “Angels in America, Part One: Millennium Approaches” at Richmond Triangle Players will not involve major architectural surgery.
“We obviously can’t crack open the roof,” says company managing director Philip Crosby, speaking of the challenge of staging the Pulitzer Prize-winning play’s most famous moment: the descent to Earth — specifically 1980s America — of an awe-inspiring, revelation-bearing angel.
“The RTP space is not going to have winged angels crashing through actual scenes,” concurs Bo Wilson, who directs the show, running April 1-25. Wilson says some other kind of coup de théâtre — not involving demolition of large-scale physical property — will distinguish the appearance of the angel, who will be played by Kylie Clark.
As he demonstrated with his invention of a character who is a winged celestial being, Kushner is not given to writing theater that is cautious or conventional. “Angels,” his best-known work, bounces between naturalism and hallucinatory fantasy, humor and intense drama, as it takes on subjects such as American history and politics, religion and metaphysics, multicultural identity, sex, love and more. The writing’s audacity, liveliness and epic scope have made “Angels” — whose two parts, “Millennium Approaches” and “Perestroika,” premiered in 1991 and 1992, respectively — the most revered and influential American script of at least the past quarter century.
Given the daring of this dramatist’s vision, it seems particularly notable that Richmond is experiencing a Kushner zeitgeist moment this season.
Currently on view is the Cadence Theatre Company production of “Caroline, or Change,” a musical with book and lyrics by Kushner and music by Jeanine Tesori. Directed by Chase Kniffen, and presented in partnership with Virginia Repertory Theatre, it runs through Saturday.
To offer a more complete experience to audiences who see “Millennium Approaches,” RTP will likely present a staged reading of “Angels in America, Part Two: Perestroika” at some point.
And the young TheatreLAB is gearing up to present “When Last We Flew,” Harrison David Rivers’ play about a high schooler obsessed by “Angels in America.” The production, which will run in repertory with RTP’s “Millennium Approaches,” features images and lines of dialogue that echo or riff on Kushner’s masterwork.
The uptick in Kushner-related programming may reflect the writer’s involvement in Steven Spielberg’s 2012 film “Lincoln,” which was shot in Richmond and Petersburg in 2011. Kushner wrote the screenplay for the movie, whose high local and national profile may have put his name in the minds of Richmond thespians.
Indeed, around the time of Kushner’s 2013 appearance at the Richmond Forum (where he spoke alongside Spielberg and historian Doris Kearns Goodwin), there was rumination in the Richmond theater community about the possibility of staging some kind of Kushner festival. That dream did not reach fruition, but it did “put Kushner in all of our brains,” says Crosby.
There is also the fact that, as milestones of modern theater, Kushner’s works offer local theaters and artists a way to mark artistic growth. Crosby says that “Angels” has long been “on the short list” of plays that he and his RTP collaborators aspired to produce. (The play was scheduled during John Knapp’s tenure as the company’s artistic director; he stepped down from that post last year.) The homosexuality of several key characters — including a young New Yorker named Louis — figures prominently in the play, which also contemplates the impact of the AIDS epidemic on the gay community in the 1980s and ’90s. Those concerns naturally made “Angels” of interest to RTP, whose mission encompasses mounting works that are relevant to the LGBTQ communities.
But with its mystical plot twists (including the ghostly appearance of the Cold War’s Ethel Rosenberg) and settings that include Salt Lake City and a phantasmagorical Antarctica, “Angels” was not a play the company could comfortably tackle in its old venue at Fieldens Cabaret Theatre.
RTP began presenting work at its new more capacious and flexible home, on Altamont Avenue, in 2010, but it took time for the company to learn to make best use of the upgraded facilities. “When you are doing a play like this, you really want to make sure that you are delivering the goods,” Crosby says.
By the 2014-15 season, Crosby says, it seemed certain that an RTP “Angels” could deliver on production values. Moreover, he notes, “we’re at the point where we are attracting the (acting) talent that you need to really pull off this play.” Admittedly, it seemed too much of a stretch to aim for a full production of both “Angels” halves, so a staged reading of “Perestroika” will have to do. Crosby thinks that “Millennium Approaches” can “stand on its own.”
Director Wilson agrees that the play will be a satisfying experience for audiences. For one thing, he says, despite its serious themes, “Millennium Approaches” “has so many moments of just raucous humor!”
Humor and seriousness also intermingle in “Caroline, or Change,” which originally opened in New York in 2003. Set against the backdrop of the civil rights movement and the assassination of President John F. Kennedy, the musical tells a bittersweet story of a black woman who works as a maid for a Jewish household in 1963 Louisiana. (Desiree Roots plays Caroline in the Cadence production.)
Whimsy registers now and then: Among the characters are an anthropomorphized washing machine and dryer, for instance.
Richmond director Kniffen observes that “Caroline, or Change” and “Angels” share more than an openness to fantasy: Both works are also keenly attuned to specific moments in American history. Moreover, he adds, both pieces fuse that broad glimpse of a nation with intimate portraits of individual lives.
That balancing act is one that Kushner’s screenplay for “Lincoln” also achieved, Kniffen points out. “So much of (the movie) is about these small relationships between Lincoln and congressmen, and his wife — and all those things inform the biggest change that the country has ever gone through,” he says.
For Kniffen, Cadence founding artistic director Anna Johnson and their colleagues, “Caroline, or Change” has offered a chance to prove that the company can mount a musical in the Theatre Gym venue. (Cadence’s previous musicals were staged in other spaces.)
Meanwhile, TheatreLAB is preparing to present “When Last We Flew.” The play, which aired at the New York International Fringe Festival in 2010 and won a GLAAD Media Award, has entranced Deejay Gray, TheatreLAB’s artistic director. In high school, Gray found Kushner’s “Angels” to be deeply meaningful. It became his favorite play, and pointed him toward a career.
“It made me realize that theater is what I needed to do,” Gray says.
“When Last We Flew” depicts a comparable Kushner-propelled epiphany for its central character, Paul, a black, gay 17-year-old resident of small-town Kansas. After stealing his local library’s copy of “Angels,” the character comes to terms with his sexuality and his closest interpersonal relationships.
Gray wanted to direct the piece, but had to bow out after he was cast as Louis in RTP’s “Millennium Approaches.” (Instead, Chelsea Burke will direct “When Last We Flew.”) But he is thrilled that audiences who experience Kushner’s masterwork will have the chance to encounter Rivers’ companion piece, too.
“People who love ‘Angels in America’ are going to be very excited about the parallels,” Gray says.