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Entertainment Highlights: ‘Angels in America’ Comes to Dartmouth

  • Natalie Salmanowitz, a Dartmouth junior, speaks as Rabbi Chemelwitz in a rehearsal of <i>Angels in America</i>.<br/>Valley News - James M. Patterson

    Natalie Salmanowitz, a Dartmouth junior, speaks as Rabbi Chemelwitz in a rehearsal of Angels in America.
    Valley News - James M. Patterson Purchase photo reprints »

  • Sam Ven Wetter, as Prior Walter, holds Andrew McKee, as Louis Ironson, after disclosing he has AIDS.<br/><br/>Valley News - James M. Patterson

    Sam Ven Wetter, as Prior Walter, holds Andrew McKee, as Louis Ironson, after disclosing he has AIDS.

    Valley News - James M. Patterson Purchase photo reprints »

  • Talene Monahan plays Harper Pitt, the lonely and depressed wife of a man who is struggling with his sexuality.<br/><br/>Valley News - James M. Patterson

    Talene Monahan plays Harper Pitt, the lonely and depressed wife of a man who is struggling with his sexuality.

    Valley News - James M. Patterson Purchase photo reprints »

  • Sam Van Wetter rehearses a scene.<br/><br/>Valley News - James M. Patterson

    Sam Van Wetter rehearses a scene.

    Valley News - James M. Patterson Purchase photo reprints »

  • Director Carol Dunne speaks to Max Gottschall prior to rehearsal of Angels in America at the Moore Theater at Dartmouth College. Gottschall plays Joe Pitt.<br/><br/>Valley News - James M. Patterson

    Director Carol Dunne speaks to Max Gottschall prior to rehearsal of Angels in America at the Moore Theater at Dartmouth College. Gottschall plays Joe Pitt.

    Valley News - James M. Patterson Purchase photo reprints »

  • Natalie Salmanowitz, a Dartmouth junior, speaks as Rabbi Chemelwitz in a rehearsal of <i>Angels in America</i>.<br/>Valley News - James M. Patterson
  • Sam Ven Wetter, as Prior Walter, holds Andrew McKee, as Louis Ironson, after disclosing he has AIDS.<br/><br/>Valley News - James M. Patterson
  • Talene Monahan plays Harper Pitt, the lonely and depressed wife of a man who is struggling with his sexuality.<br/><br/>Valley News - James M. Patterson
  • Sam Van Wetter rehearses a scene.<br/><br/>Valley News - James M. Patterson
  • Director Carol Dunne speaks to Max Gottschall prior to rehearsal of Angels in America at the Moore Theater at Dartmouth College. Gottschall plays Joe Pitt.<br/><br/>Valley News - James M. Patterson

There’s little subject matter in Tony Kushner’s Pulitzer Prize-winning Angels in America, which opens in a Dartmouth Theater Department production Saturday, that would be familiar to a current college student. The name “Roy Cohn” probably isn’t recognizable to a student born in the 1990s. And they were born after the AIDS epidemic seemed like a modern plague.

Angels opens in the closing months of 1985, when AIDS had already claimed numerous victims, most of them gay men, including former matinee idol Rock Hudson. It also took Cohn, the assistant to Joseph McCarthy and infamous New York attorney, who lived most of his life as a closeted gay man before succumbing to AIDS (Cohn appears as a fictionalized character in Angels).

Kushner’s play suggests that optimistic Reagan-ites, embodied in Angels by the Mormon law clerk Joe Pitt, turned a blind eye, preferring to focus on the “Morning in America” theme of the Reagan administration. “America has rediscovered itself. Its sacred position among nations,” Pitt tells his wife Harper in the play. “And people aren’t ashamed of that like they used to be. This is a great thing.” But even this couple is not immune to the darker currents of the times. Like his mentor Cohn, Joe Pitt is secretly gay. And Harper Pitt spends her days in a Valium haze, musing on the hole in the ozone layer, and her husband’s sexuality.

Elements of darkness are everywhere in Angels, yet the play treats the subject matter in a frank, at-times-even-funny way.

“On one level, it’s not a hard play to watch at all, because it’s very realistic and the characters are very moving. You can relate to them,” said Carol Dunne, Dartmouth theater lecturer and Angels director. “And yet there are scenes that are terrible to watch as AIDS works its way into people’s lives.”

None of the actors in the Dartmouth production were born at the time Angels is set in or can remember a time when an AIDS diagnosis was synonymous with imminent death.

“I’ve been around death,” said sophomore Andrew McKee, who plays Louis Ironson, at last Thursday’s rehearsal, “but not this constant sense of dying before your time.”

Seeing pictures of AIDS patients “was very chilling to me,” said Talene Monahon, a senior who plays Harper Pitt.

In the New York theater community that counted Kushner among its members, the effects of AIDS were far reaching. Gordon Clapp, the television and theater actor who often performs in regional theater, watched last Thursday’s rehearsal at the invitation of Monahon, his costar in a New London Barn Playhouse production this summer. Clapp recalled opening the Actors Equity Association’s newsletter in the late 1980s and seeing the names of 15 people he knew who had died from the disease. Being a theater performer “in the late ’80s and early ’90s, it was such an incredible event and such a part of our lives,” he said.

Thanks to the advent of antiretroviral drugs like AZT, the specter of AIDS has diminished since the first cases

were reported. It’s not unfathomable that persons diagnosed as HIV-positive could live out their normal lifespan. By the same token, that has made AIDS seem less severe to the generation born since the epidemic was at its height.

“I think young people think this is a disease that isn’t around anymore,” Dunne said. “My kids and my cast will say it’s controllable.” She said the theater department decided to bring the play to Dartmouth “to educate the students and enlighten the audience, that AIDS is not over by any means, and being out as a homosexual is not necessarily any easier.”

To foster dialogue about HIV and AIDS, Saturday night’s performance will be preceded by a 6 p.m. discussion, “AIDS: Then and Now,” led by Mike Zegans and Martha Graber, both physicians at Dartmouth’s Geisel School of Medicine, in the Warner Bentley Theater. On Nov. 8, a discussion titled “AIDS and its Angels as a Mirror on America” will be led by Dartmouth anthropology professor Sienna Craig and Tim Lahey, a Dartmouth-Hitchcock physician who works with AIDS patients.

It’s also no coincidence that Dartmouth is staging Angels the weekend before and the weekend after the presidential election.

“We just felt it was time to bring the play out again,” Dunne said, “and help people connect 1985 to 2012 and see if we’ve improved or how we haven’t, and ultimately how we can.”

In Angels, AIDS forces the character Prior Walter to come to terms with his own mortality, which he does with a biting wit. Showing a Kaposi’s Sarcoma lesion to his partner Louis Ironson, Prior declares himself “a lesionnaire. The Foreign Lesion. The American Lesion. Lesionnaire’s disease.” Prior’s diagnosis brings out the worst in Louis, who abandons his partner.

As much as AIDS colors the plot of Angels, Dunne believes it is really about relationships between people, and how they respond to the bombshells that threaten to end their lives together, whether it’s an AIDS diagnosis, in the case of Louis and Prior, or the secret at the heart of the Pitt marriage.

Angels is “a play that on one level is very real and very intimate about couples and relationships and friendships, and I think (the audience) will find that aspect of the play very recognizable and very enjoyable,” Dunne said.

Another theme throughout the play is the dual lives that people lead. Of all the play’s characters, it’s Roy Cohn, played by Dartmouth senior Max Hunter, who goes to great lengths to keep both his sexuality and his AIDS diagnosis a secret, as neither is reconcilable with the public persona he has created. When his doctor tells Cohn he has AIDS, Cohn dismisses gays and AIDS patients as people with no clout — after all, he’s spent much of his life accumulating power.

“Roy knows who he is, never doubts it for a second, and defines himself by unabashedly rejecting half of his identity,” Hunter said. “He never lets any of the conflicts surrounding him interfere with his personal ambition.”

Kushner wrote Angels in America as a two-part play. When performed in its entirety, it can run as long as seven hours, which led to the decision to stage only the first part, titled Millennium Approaches. Dunne said the theater department might perform Perestroika, the second part, at a later date.

When it was first performed 20 years ago, Angels in America garnered praise from theater critics, and it’s still considered among the best theatrical works written in the latter half of the 20th century. Angels gained greater recognition in 2003, when it was adapted into a TV miniseries starring Al Pacino, Meryl Streep and Emma Thompson. It’s an ambitious play for any theater company to stage, and the actors know that there are high expectations.

“I think the fact that it’s so well known brings its own sort of baggage,” Hunter said. “You can’t escape the legacy this has in the theater world.”

There are few scenes in Angels that have more than two or three characters, so the rehearsal period has seen Dunne work with the actors in small groups. These have helped the actors to develop a greater understanding about the characters they’re playing and the emotional intensity of the piece, Dunne said.

The students are “really finding the depths of these characters and they’re finding this journey in an incredibly sophisticated piece of theater. … It takes incredible stamina to do a play like this and they’ve built that up.”

“Angels in America” will be performed at 8 p.m. Saturday and 2 p.m. Sunday in The Moore Theater at Dartmouth’s Hopkins Center for the Arts. It will also be staged at 8 p.m. Nov. 8 through 10, and at 2 p.m. Nov. 11 ($10-$19).