As long as I have known Randy Read, artistic director of New Stages Theatre Company in Peterborough, he has been telling me about Tony Kushner’s play Angels in America. It’s a show that often comes up in our conversations, and a show he has told me I need to see one day.
We will all finally get a chance to experience this two-part American modern classic in April and May when Randy presents a staged reading of Angels in America, featuring an all-star cast of local and out-of-town actors, as part of New Stages Theatre Company’s popular Page on Stage series.
On Sunday, April 22nd, Randy and his players will present Angels in America Part 1: Millennium Approaches, and will continue with Angels in America Part 2: Perestroika, on Sunday, May 27th. Both performances take place at Market Hall Performing Arts Centre in downtown Peterborough.
“It’s a magnificent play,” Randy says. “The language is so rich. The themes are so complex and relevant to everybody in some way.”
Written by American playwright Tony Kushner, Angels in America has a long production history. Part 1: Millennium Approaches made its stage debut in May 1991 at the Eureka Theater Company in San Francisco, with the second part Perestroika making its first official stage performance in November 1992.
However, the show was finally combined when it was brought to Broadway in 1993. Although the show runs approximately seven hours in its entirety, split into two parts and containing four intermissions, Angels in America won the Pulitzer Prize for Drama in 1993 and was awarded both the Tony Award and the Drama Desk Award for Best Play in 1994.
In 2003, it was made into an HBO miniseries directed by Mike Nichols and starring Al Pacino, Meryl Streep, Mary-Louise Parker, Emma Thompson, and more. It was the most-watched made-for-cable film that year, garnering much critical acclaim and multiple Golden Globe and Emmy awards.
In April 2017, a revival of Angels in America made its debut on the London stage where it won the Olivier Award for Best Revival. The production has now returned to Broadway for the first time in 25 years, opening on March 25, 2018 and starring Nathan Lane and Andrew Garfield.
Taking place in the 1980s during the height of the AIDS epidemic, Angels in America was one of the first major productions to openly examine the relationships between gay men and to deal with the subject of AIDS. Released during an era when society was finally changing its attitudes towards homosexuality, the play was hailed a progressive masterpiece but still raised controversy among groups uncomfortable with the subject matter.
Although the show premiered nearly 25 years ago, the themes of Angels in America are as relevant today as they were when it premiered.
“It’s incredible looking at it again now, how relevant it is today,” Randy says. “It was written in response to the Reagan administration at a time when there was a kind of greed, in terms of money being more important to people than looking after each other.
“It feels like we are regressing in some ways. I haven’t actually worried about nuclear war, in a genuine way, since I was a young man. Now it feels like its surfacing again. The thing about these plays is that they are really about that human beings have no choice but to move forward, and when we resist that we get into trouble.”
Randy began his relationship with Angels in America when he worked as the casting director for the show’s first Canadian production in 1998.
“I probably saw the show twenty to thirty times during that time,” Randy says. “To me it’s just a very special script. I’m trying to think of another play as important as this from the end of the 20th century. There was Tennessee Williams, Arthur Miller, and then Angels in America.”
Because of the magnitude of Angels in America, Randy chose his popular reading series to bring the play to the Peterborough stage.
“Because of the complexity of it, we couldn’t possibly afford to do a full production of Angels in America,” Randy explains. “The rehearsal time involved to do it justice would have to have three or four weeks, and that’s a lot of money you’re talking about.”
However, Randy has assembled a cast of eight local and out-of-town actors for the staged reading: Derek McGrath as Roy Cohn, Jeff Lillico as Prior Walter, Kate Suhr as Harper Pitt, Sergio Di Zio as Louis Ironson, Jesse LaVercombe as Joe Pitt, Linda Kash as Hannah Pitt/Ethel Rosenberg, Megan Murphy as The Angel, and Troy Adams as Belize (who will be reprising his role from the successful 2013 Soul Pepper Theatre production in Toronto).
“The reading series is so successful because it seems people love the purity of the words and the actors,” Randy adds. “If we were doing a full production, there would be very stark theatrical images that we won’t have in the reading. I still think that the language is so rich and strong and character-connected that the audience will have sufficient material to be able to engage.”
Because of the size of the show and its importance to Randy, the readings will differ slightly compared to past Page on Stage readings. The production will include minimal lighting and sound effects, and Randy will disperse with the usual reading of stage directions.
Also, due to the length of the show (each presentation will last approximately three hours, with two 10-minute intermissions), the “talk back” session at the end of each reading will be temporarily retired — although Randy does encourage any audience member who wants to discuss the show to freely contact him via email.
“I have to trust the script and the faith that I have in it,” Randy says. “I have to trust the audience to work with us. I have to trust that they are engaged enough that they’ll stay with us. It’s the words, the actors, and the audience, and that’s enough. That’s all that you need.”
In many of our visits over the years, Randy has expressed how much he has wanted to bring Angels in America to Peterborough. Now that he is finally making that wish a reality, Randy acknowledges the nervous tension he is experiencing about finally staging this show at Market Hall.
“I’m terrified because this show is so important to me,” Randy admits. “It’s hugely challenging. But because it’s so challenging, it gives me a stronger drive to do it. And because there is a fear of failing, there is a stronger drive to make it work. I can’t control anything once things start. I guess that’s what’s exciting about live theatre to me. Once it starts, anything can happen. You have little control over it.”
“But it’s important to me because I really want our audience to experience what these plays are, because they are both very special pieces of work. I know there are a lot of people who haven’t seen them before. I think there is a depth and richness to them and I want our audience to experience this.
“At the end of the day, as corny as it might sound, I love our audience. I love them individually and collectively and I want to give them the best that I can give them. It’s the whole reason for doing this, really. I think Angels in America is one of the best ten plays written in the last twenty five years.”
Angels in America Part 1: Millennium Approaches will be performed on Sunday, April 22nd at Market Hall Performing Arts Centre (140 Charlotte St., Peterborough). Angels in America Part 2: Perestroika will be performed on Sunday, May 27th, also at the Market Hall. Both shows begin at 7:30 p.m.. Tickets are $25 ($15 students/artworkers) and are available in person at the Market Hall box office, by phone at 705-749-1146, or online at markethall.org.