The Wilma Theater on the Avenue of the Arts in Philadelphia is now staging Part Two of the landmark play, “Angels in America: A Gay Fantasia on National Themes.”
Part One was the final production of the Wilma’s 2011-2012 season, and Part Two opens Wilma’s new season. This weekend, the company will do both parts, consecutively. The seven-hour “Angels” marathon is a test of stamina, for cast, crew, and audiences.
Playwright Tony Kushner debuted the first part of “Angels in America” — called “The Millennium Approaches” — in 1991 in San Francisco. “Perestroika,” the second part, debuted a year later. It won a Pulitzer in 1993, and became the basis of an Emmy-winning HBO miniseries.
Set in the late 1980s, when AIDS was ravaging the gay community, the play’s eight actors take on multiple roles, including the angels of the title, who may or may not be real but who nevertheless appear before a dying gay man to reveal that he is actually a prophet.
Both parts of “Angels” are episodic, ensemble plays. No character is on stage the whole time, so the actors get a little breathing time before each stage appearance, which helps them pace themselves through the seven-hour emotional steeplechase.
“You get this incredible roller coaster,” said actor Ben Pelteson, who plays Louis. “It is really invigorating when it’s firing on all cylinders, everybody in the cast leaves the theater more awake, oddly. And everyone’s hungry afterwards. It takes a while to come down off that high.”
A dinner break intermission
The audience, however, is not afforded little breaks as it constantly engages with often highly charged scenes of betrayal, hope, despair, political corruption, and hallucination. The Wilma programmed a one-hour dinner break between the plays to help audience members decompress, and eat.
Actor James Ijames, who plays Belize, offers some advice.
“Get out, allow the world around you to help you digest the play, (don’t) close yourself off in that hour,” he says. “So that when you come back in for the second play, your heart is just as open as it was when you came in for the first one. You’re ready to receive everything that’s going to be hurled, thrown, shot at you.”
While the stage is set sparsely for both plays, there are spectacular technical moments, particularly involving flying angels, which the backstage crew has been rehearsing since last spring, when they started Part One.
“I have never done this before. It’s its own adventure,” said Patricia Adams, the Wilma’s longtime stage manager. “It is two entirely different plays. I know they go together, Part One and Part Two, but they are different plays.”
The Wilma offers special marathon packages of both parts of “Angels in America” Saturday and Sunday, and again Oct. 17. On Oct. 10, 13, and 20, the schedule runs an early matinee of Part Two, and a later evening performance of Part One. That’s a marathon in reverse.