By David Ford
Photo by Michael Brosilow

[Tony Kushner] was writing the play in the late '80s and early '90s, and the subjects he covers are, if anything, more pertinent than ever in 2012.”
—Charles Newell
Court Theatre director

If there is wisdom to be gleaned from Court Theatre’s production of Tony Kushner’s Pulitzer-Prize and multi-Tony Award-winning epic masterpiece Angels in America, it might be that very big things sometimes happen in small spaces.

Kushner’s play, which premiered in 1992 and runs seven hours when its two parts are performed sequentially, takes place in New York in 1985. It concerns a decidedly unlikely cast of characters: a young gay WASP who is diagnosed with AIDS and his neurotic partner; a young, closeted, Mormon lawyer, his undersexed and overmedicated wife, and his staunchly Mormon mother; Roy Cohn, the fiercely conservative and closeted power broker, who is dying of AIDS-related complications; and of course that spectacular Angel.

When Kushner suggested to Court’s Artistic Director Charles Newell that he would like to see the UChicago-based theater company produce his celebrated classic, Newell couldn’t help asking, “Why Angels now?” Kushner’s immediate response reflects his long relationship with Newell and Court.

“He loves our space, the intimacy and emotional accessibility it affords,” Newell says.

Kushner’s relationship with Newell began when the playwright attended a performance of Court’s 2008 production of Caroline, or Change, a musical by Kushner with music by Jeanine Tesori. “He came to a performance of Caroline and afterwards came on stage and led the curtain call,” Newell recalls. The relationship deepened with the playwright’s attendance at a performance of Court’s 2010 production The Illusion, Kushner’s adaptation of a 17th-century comedy by Corneille.

Merging intimacy and epic scale

Newell contends that the scale of Court’s performance space allows for a theatrical experience that is unavailable in larger venues. “When Caroline, or Change premiered in New York [in 2003] it was in a much larger space and on a more generalized scale,” Newell says. “It’s a real treat for us to be able to produce these works with the intimacy the space provides.”

But Newell allows that this very intimacy presents certain challenges when producing a play on the scale of Angels. “How can we preserve the intimacy of the space and still do justice to the play’s epic scale,” Newell recalls asking himself. “This is a play with many locations, including non-literal, imaginary locations, with angels flying and visits to heaven and hell.”

While Kushner acknowledges that larger theaters allow greater technical possibilities, smaller ones have many advantages. “There was no way to have the Angel crash through the ceiling at Court,” Kushner says, “but in a small space you gain immediacy. Audiences can read what’s going on in detail between the actors on stage.”

Court’s executive director Stephen Albert notes that in addition to the dramaturgical challenges, there are also issues related to the historical distance of the events depicted in the play.

“Watching some of the actors, who were not alive in the mid-80s, it is difficult to communicate the sense of panic that revolved around every intimate relationship,” Albert says. “Charles has worked to help them understand the deep sense of self-loathing that was part of the stigma of being homosexual at that time, and that is so much a part of many of the characters in Tony’s play.”

A lasting impression

But Angels in America is not simply a play about AIDS. Newell credits Kushner for his remarkable prescience in addressing a variety of social ills, from the AIDS epidemic and the question of how we care for the sick to income inequality and the threat of global warming. “He was writing the play in the late '80s and early '90s, and the subjects he covers are, if anything, more pertinent than ever in 2012,” he says.

Mary Beth Fisher, who portrays the Angel in Court’s production, agrees. “[An] enormously important, unfortunately politicized issue for us as a nation right now is about how we care for our people,” she observes. “As [Kushner] points out [in the play], ‘America: It’s just no country for the infirm.’ What are we going to do about that?”

Kushner sees the significance of the play’s social content as something that evolves over time. “When the 20th-anniversary production was staged in New York, it was at the time of the tsunami in Japan and the catastrophe at the Fukushima nuclear plant,” the playwright recalls. “When you look at the double-dip recession we’re experiencing today, it highlights how catastrophic the economic policies of Reaganism have been for this country.”

For Kushner, this might account for the play’s continued relevance and popularity. “It is up to audiences and directors and actors to decide what the play is about. You may see it one year and decide it’s about this, then see it the next year and decide it’s about that,” Kushner says. “The ability to mean different things at different times is what makes a play last.”

Conversations, collaborations nurture scholarly exploration

Kushner will return to Chicago later this month to see Court’s production and continue his work with Newell and the University. “Charlie [Newell] and I are talking about a collaboration on an adaptation of a really important European classic, though I’d rather not say what it is just yet,” Kushner says of his future plans. “There are scholars at UChicago who would be involved in this collaboration and Charlie would direct it. There also has been talk of a new play, a new musical.”

These conversations are being supported by an exploratory fellowship provided by the University’s newly established Gray Center for Arts and Inquiry. With a generous grant from the Mellon Foundation, the Gray Center is nurturing exploratory collaborations between scholars and artists.

“The prospect of bringing our faculty into conversation with Tony Kushner’s work isn’t in and of itself exciting because that’s been an ongoing conversation. But the prospect of extending those conversations into a longer-term collaboration between members of our faculty and Court Theatre and Tony Kushner is tremendously exciting,” says David Levin, director of the Gray Center.

Whatever comes of Kushner’s Gray Center fellowship, there is little doubt that this will not be the end of the playwright’s work with Court. “I treasure the working relationship I have with Charlie and with Court. I love working in Chicago. There are fantastic audiences and actors and directors,” Kushner says. “I am looking forward to continuing this collaboration.”

Originally published on May 14, 2012.