The Corn Stock Winter Playhouse opened its latest presentation on Friday night:
"Angels in America: Millennium Approaches".
I must admit that when Corn Stock first announced their winter season, I was surprised and apprehensive to see this play in the line-up.
It is such an epic and complex piece that it is an ambitious undertaking for any amateur theater group and especially for the intimate confines of the Winter Playhouse's in-the-round venue.
The Corn Stock players not only rose to the challenge, they have presented here one of the finest collections of ensemble acting seen locally since Peoria Players' "Diary of Anne Frank".
This Pulitzer Prize winning first half of Tony Kushner's epic drama is set in Ronald Reagan's America of the mid eighties. It uses politics and the AIDS holocaust to explore issues of identity, inner struggle, morality, and spirituality.
Although the face of the AIDS epidemic has changed drastically in the last twenty-five years, this play remains extremely relevant in today's America of increased political divisiveness between the left and the right.
At the heart of the tale is Prior Walter, a young man recently diagnosed with AIDS and in a relationship with Louis Ironson, a young Jewish man confronting his own issues of commitment and loyalty.
Prior's life is paralleled with that of Joe Pitt, a young Mormon lawyer struggling with his sexual identity. His new young wife, Harper, lives in her own Valium fueled fantasy world.
Joe is being courted by Roy Cohn to come to Washington as a part of the Reagan Justice Department. The Cohn character (based on the real person) is a ruthless closeted man also recently diagnosed with AIDS. For Cohn the ultimate aphrodisiac truly is power and the wielding of it to control others.
He considers his life's greatest accomplishment to be securing the death penalty for Ethel Rosenberg, using his influence in an illicit manner to accomplish it.
The play calls for eight actors to play multiple roles, some intentionally cross-gendered. These eight actors, without exception, deliver superb performances.
Jacob Uhlman is perfectly cast as Prior Walter. His physical appearance coupled with his emotional delivery bring the character to life. He captures the correct mix of camp and pathos.
The character of Roy Cohn is one of the nastiest and most repulsive villains in modern drama. Clark Rians sinks his teeth into this role like a pit bull and shakes every bit of intensity and meanness out of it.
Landen Zumwalt is right on the money in his performance as the extremely conflicted Joe Pitt, walking the emotional tightrope between his Mormon upbringing and his inner desires.
Emily Crusen is excellent as the drug-addled Harper Pitt, She shines particularly brightly in the Antarctica fantasy scene.
Rebecca Frankel Clifton shows a terrific range in playing two male and two female characters. She is Hannah Pitt (Joes' mother), Henry, Rabbi Chemelwitz, and Ethel Rosenberg. She brings believability to each of these varied roles, all amazing performances.
Will Loftus personifies Jewish Guilt as Louis Ironson. His character is the link between the parallel narratives.
Last year, Mr. Loftus impressed with his comedic performance as William Barfee in EastLight's "25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee". He shows us here that he does drama equally well.
Eric Gore (Belize, and Mr. Lies) and Chloe Whiting Stevens (Nurse Emily, Sister Chapter, Homeless Woman, and The Angel) round out this excellent cast with their own great individual performances.
Although the dragging in and out of large set pieces is a bit distracting, the play is for the most part well executed from a technical standpoint.
The story is enhanced through the projection of video images onto two large screens. The images contain snapshots of America during the 1980s.
In larger theatrical performances, the Angel makes her appearance in a most dramatic fashion, bursting through the wall or ceiling.
The Angel's appearance here is perfectly orchestrated in consideration of the smallness of the space.
In addition to stage management and technical staff, congratulations must be given to Director Dani Keil for this first rate production.
It was announced that the second half of the play, "Angels in America: Perestroika" will be performed in the Winter Playhouse's 2011-2012 season. I can only hope that the same director and cast will return for that effort.
This first half of the play runs a full three and a half hours, excluding two intermissions totalling twenty minutes. That may seem like a lengthy evening, but believe me, you will not want to see the end of a show this good.
Performances continue tonight, tomorrow, and through next Saturday. Tickets are only $10 for adults, $7 for students and may be purchased at the door or by calling the box office at 676-2196.