The late American playwright Lanford Wilson – Missouri born, Ozark raised – once said that he wrote for “those decently intellectual, politically aware social realists out there.” Wilson’s plays often appeared on the lamented Studio Arena Theatre’s stage: the autobiographical “Lemon Sky” for one and two-thirds of his “Talley Trilogy;” “Talley’s Folly,” starring a blossoming Christine Baranski; and its sequel, “The Fifth of July.” The Niagara Frontier apparently qualified for Wilson’s targeted audiences.
Those audiences also are found regularly at Richard Lambert’s New Phoenix Theatre so it’s quite apropos that a Wilson play – a lesser one but Tony nominated nevertheless, 1982’s “Angels Fall” – is the latest offering from the company.
Gail Golden directs Lambert, Mike Randall, Pamela Rose Mangus, Candice Kogut, Justin Fiordaliso and Lucas Lloyd in this tale of stranded, troubled travelers at an impoverished Navajo church mission in New Mexico, sanctuaried there because of a nearby nuclear accident, huddled with their immediate plans on hold until an “all clear” is sounded. That awaited OK to resume their individual life paths, in some cases, may not necessarily be good news.
Briefly, the story: When the alarm is sounded, warning of a possible nuclear disaster, with orders to take shelter, several distraught travelers do so in the Navajo mission church of aging Father Doherty: Niles, a former college professor, a “publish or perish” victim, and his young wife, Vita, a children’s author; Marion, widow of a well-known painter, and her much younger boy-toy tennis pro companion, Zappy. The harried Doherty is there, along with his adopted Navajo son, Don Tabaha, a doctor debating whether to stay and serve his people or take a fellowship in California.
So, six edgy people are church-bound, forced to talk, interact, confess and confide and rant about their plight, where they’ve been, their wants, worries and needs. Powder keg Niles, surly Don and even Father Doherty – a bit early on and later, big-time – seem to be in need of anger management help. There is much shouting. And tirades. “I love a good tirade,” says the priest at one point. Vita tries to calm Niles, Marion is maternal yet touchy-feely with the immature, paranoid Zappy. Father Doherty, in his attempts to counsel, makes matters worse.
“Angels Fall” is another of Wilson’s tales of human fallibility and resilience, his canny Father Doherty full of his own burned-out ministry disappointments, his dwindling, disinterested flock and various other demons, says the right words at the right times to his stressed-out visitors and so there is at least a temporary happy ending, one with mild surprise. Wilson was expert at writing about people adrift in America, but he also was a champion of the human spirit.
There may be one too many crises waiting to be solved in “Angels Fall,” but director Golden sees that all get their due. Her cast is excellent from top to bottom. Randall perfectly nails Father Doherty. He’s bent, foxy-grandpa-ish and describes his daily Mass thusly: “I step up to the altar and say ‘give me the usual.’ ” After a recent spate of smaller roles in area stage productions, he’s a marvel here, aided by the superb Lambert, as ready-to-lose-it Niles. Stalwart actresses Mangus, as Marion, and the always-precise Kogut, as Vita, are often excellent voices of reason. Fiordaliso impresses as the enigmatic Don and the lanky Lloyd is fine as the hyperactive, steroidal Zappy.
What: “Angels Fall”
Where: New Phoenix Theatre, 95 North Johnson Park
When: Through April 4
Tickets: $30 general, $20 seniors and students