Joe Bearor, Nate Stephenson, Robbie Harrison and Michela Micalizio in “Angels in America.” Photo by James A. Hadley

In a spectacular co-production, Portland Stage and the Dramatic Repertory Company have gone long and deep with one of the classic plays of the late 20th century.

At just over three hours including two intermissions, “Angels in America Part I: Millennium Approaches” challenges the audience with its imaginative exploration of the depths of a particularly troublesome period in U.S. history. Set in 1985 in New York City, Tony Kushner’s 1991 Tony Award- and Pulitzer Prize-winning play explores a tumultuous era that, alas, doesn’t seem that long ago in terms of some societal divisions it explores.

The then still-mysterious epidemic of AIDS was only slowly emerging as a national issue in an America where the ruthless politics of denial pushed uncomfortable truths aside. Not only the immediate sufferers of the disease but those who professionally and personally cared for them had to bear an incredible burden.

A talented group of eight locally connected actors, co-directed by Keith Powell Beyland and Peter Brown, take on multiple roles in a sort of kaleidoscopic presentation combining overlapping scenes that mix tough talk, casual sex, comic banter, spooky visitations and philosophical debates. A multi-level set design by Anita Stewart and lighting by SeifAllah Salotto-Cristobal place the action in both real and otherworldly contexts.

Major roles fall to Robbie Harrison as Prior, a young man whose AIDS symptoms threaten his relationship with his partner Louis, played by Nate Stephenson. Louis’ emotional discomfort grows as does Prior’s real pain in some scenes that cut through the production’s stylized presentation in heartbreaking ways. Both actors connect with the individual loneliness felt by many in that not-so-long-ago cultural moment.

The marriage between Joseph, played by Joseph Bearor, and his environmentalist wife Harper, played by Michela Micalizio, also frays as Joseph begins to believe he may be gay while Harper seeks refuge in a world of valium-induced hallucinations. Joseph remains a bit of a dour, conflicted fellow while Harper, by way of another of Micalizio’s trademark spirited performances, draws most of the sympathy, not to mention some major laughs.


Local theater veteran Paul Haley plays real-life character Roy Cohn, a legal fixer of the period who valued political clout over ethics until AIDS and the law finally brought him down. Haley makes Cohn the kind of fast-talking hustler we may recognize.

Denise Poirier, another familiar local performer, gives dramatic heft, as well as some comic relief, to roles including that of Joseph’s Mormon mother who rushes from Utah to the big city. As drag queen Belize, Ashanti Dwight Williams is a truth-telling visitor who engages with Louis in a rather late-in-the-play colloquy about racial and religious tensions.

And last, the Angel, played by Casey Turner (who also ably fills several smaller roles), drops in to proclaim, “The Great Work begins.” Audiences will have to wait awhile to see if the tentative hopefulness suggested at the close of Part I will prevail when “Angels in America Part II” is presented at Portland Stage next fall.

Steve Feeney is a freelance writer who lives in Portland.

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