Preview: Angels in America

Wilma is staging the epic AIDS play this summer with two months of special events

The final production of Wilma Theater‘s season will likely be one of its biggest undertakings of the year. Tony Kushner’s Tony Award-winning play Angels in America, Part One: Millennium Approaches begins previews on May 23 and runs through July 1. The second half of the epic saga Part Two: Perestroika – which combines a story about a gay couple in the age of AIDS with everything from Mormonism and Ethel Rosenberg to Roy Cohn – opens the next season.

The year is 1985. In New York City, Roy Cohn, the politically powerful right-wing lawyer, angrily denies his diagnosis of AIDS, while his protégé, a court clerk and Republican Mormon, struggles with a Valium-addicted wife who has “visions” that catapult the play into different spheres of storytelling and consciousness.

At the same time, an ailing, yet spirited gay man begins to hear messages from a supernatural being that builds into a nothing less than an exhilarating conclusion – and one that encompasses much of the fear, confusion and complexity that characterized the community during the early days of the international health crisis.

“The AIDS crisis of the 1980s provoked Tony Kushner to write a play of a scope and complexity that, I believe, we had not seen before, nor have we seen since, in this country,” says director Blanka Zizka. “The playwright gives the play the subtitle A Gay Fantasia on National Themes, and clearly points out his own sexual identity and establishes the vantage point for his imagination. Through one of the characters (the Oldest Living Bolshevik in Perestroika), Kushner asks old, but profoundly existential questions, that reverberate throughout the whole play and concern all the characters (Gays, Jews, Mormons, WASPs, African-Americans, and those with and without power ): Where did we come from? What are we doing? Where are we going?”

Millennium Approaches was commissioned and first performed in 1990 by the Center Theatre Group in Los Angeles as a workshop. It received its world premiere the following year in a production by the Eureka Theatre Company of San Francisco that made history. It later debuted on Broadway at the Walter Kerr Theatre in 1993, winning accolades and every major theatre award, including the Pulitzer Prize.

For this production, several Philly actors – as well as those from both the East and West coasts – have been enlisted in the cast, including: Kate Czajkowski (Barrymore nomination for the Wilma’s In The Next Room, or the vibrator play) as Harper, Aubrey Deeke as Prior, Maia DeSanti as Angel, James Ijames (2011 recipient of the F. Otto Haas Award for an Emerging Philadelphia Theatre Artist) as Belize, Stephen Novelli (Eurydice) as Roy, Benjamin Pelteson as Louis, Mary Elizabeth Scallen as Hannah, and Luigi Sottile (Barrymore nomination for In the Next Room, or the vibrator play) as Joe.

“I personally count Angels in America among the great classics, and, as any great classic,” says Zizka, “the play engages these questions on personal, philosophical, political, and cosmic levels. Twenty years later after the first production, as I work on the play, I find its themes as relevant and urgent as ever.”

There will be several special events in conjunction with the show next month, including a panel discussion by some of Philadelphia’s foremost LGBT leaders and exhibition in the lobby. The Wilma Theater is also participating in AIDS Education Month during June, which is sponsored by Philadelphia FIGHT.

May 31: Onstage Conversation
Stay after the performance to discuss the play with a member of the Wilma’s artistic staff.

June 7: Onstage Conversation ­
Stay after the performance to discuss the play with a member of the Wilma’s artistic staff.

June 15: Young Friends Evening
Complimentary pre-show reception for audience members age 35 and younger.

June 20: Onstage Conversation
Stay after the matinee performance to discuss the play with a member of the Wilma’s artistic staff in the lobby with complimentary coffee.

June 22: Tria Pre-Show Wine Tasting
A complimentary, pre-show wine tasting in our lobby starting at 7 p.m.

June 25: Community Conversation: The impact of HIV/AIDS in Philadelphia
The free Community Conversation (7:30 p.m.) to discuss the impact of HIV/AIDS in Philadelphia is sponsored by Philadelphia FIGHT. Speakers from Philadelphia FIGHT, as well as Mazzoni Center, William Way LGBT Center and The City of Philadelphia Mayor’s Office for LGBT Affairs will discuss current topics and issues regarding HIV/AIDS in Philadelphia with an audience Q&A to follow. The Wilma Theater will also present a comprehensive exhibition examining the HIV/AIDS epidemic in Philadelphia.

Angels in America: Part One: Millennium Approaches, May 23 – July 1, Wilma Theater, 265 S. Broad Street, 215-546-7824.