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'Angels' still speaks powerfully to post-millennium America

Nearly two decades after Y2K and 30 years after Tony Kushner gave the world his "AIDS play," the hefty two-part "Angels in America" remains one of the brightest stars in the theater firmament.

Rather than dating the play, the distance of time brings even more clarity to the understanding that "Angels" isn't just about AIDS at all. In its comic and tragic voices, it speaks to all humanity.

The beauty of the much-honored play is on full display in Second Generation Theatre's production of "Angels in America: Part One, The Millennium Approaches," now playing in Shea's Smith Theatre. While Kushner's vision is sprawling, the characters' emotional interactions are desperately intimate, and the cozy venue is a fine place to share them (although you might want to avoid seats on the far sides, if you have a choice).

And there is much to share. Jacob Albarella grabs us right from the start as the fumbling Rabbi Isidor Chemelwitz, presiding with authoritative ignorance over the funeral of an old woman he admits he didn't know. Even so, he knows her story: of immigration and hardship, of bringing part of her homeland with her to America, and of passing that on to her children and grandchildren (even the one inexplicably named "Eric").

This story doesn't happen anymore, the rabbi says. "She was the last of the Mohicans, this one," he continues in his incongruous way, noting that soon all the old ones like her will be dead.

What he doesn't say is that, in 1985 America, the young are dying, too.

Louis Ironson (Anthony J. Grande) and Prior Walter (Ben Michael Moran) are a couple, and Prior uses the funeral of Louis's grandmother to tell his lover that he has AIDS. Moran is a marvel in his portrayal of Prior, beginning with his announcement that he's now a "Lesionaire," among other bad puns, on through his suffering, hallucinations and loss.

Louis, on the other hand, is stunned. He made no pledge of being there in health and sickness, because sickness was never part of the equation. Now, it is, and he doesn't know what to do.

Meanwhile, on the other side of the small stage, Mormon couple Joseph and Harper Pitt (Steve Copps and Kristin Bentley) are having issues of their own. Joe is coming to terms with being a misfit virtually everywhere, from a profanity-filled office encounter with unprincipled lawyer Roy Cohn to his marriage that is so empty of passion he and his wife call one another "buddy."

Copps and Grande both carry their tales of disintegration with appropriate degrees of fear and fortitude, fully realized in a wonderful scene played out together in a company restroom and built upon later in their efforts to escape the inevitable.

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Bentley is a revelation as Harper. Though hooked on valium, her Harper is clear-eyed about her situation, able to honestly tell her conflicted, closeted husband that they are "happy, happy enough. Pretend happy," right up until she leaves him.

Compare that to David Oliver's gleeful portrayal of the vicious political fixer/attack dog Roy Cohn, whose real-life alliances ranged from being Joe McCarthy's lawyer to Donald Trump's mentor, and who denied being homosexual up until his death from AIDS in 1986. Facing his mortality has not yet softened him in Kushner's Part One, and Oliver never lets up as Cohn rages against the coming darkness and, worse, his pending insignificance.

"Angels" has some smaller parts, but no lesser ones. Dudney Joseph Jr. brings his A-game as drag-queen-turned-nurse Belize and as Harper's imaginary friend Mr. Lies; Kristen Tripp Kelley wings her way splendidly from practical nurse to Grizabella-like homeless woman to her final spectacular entrance in the title role, and Mary McMahon does the trick as a mom lost in New York and as the ghost of Ethel Rosenberg.

Director Greg Natale clearly loves and understands Kushner's material and navigates its intricate path with confidence. The infinitely flexible set by Primo Thomas carries the action smoothly through myriad scene changes, supported by sound and light design from Chris Cavanagh, who delivers everything the show asks for in heaven and earth.

With its two intermissions, the show runs well over three hours. Even so, as one longtime theater fan pointed out afterward, when walking out of Part One of "Angels in America," what you really want to do is see Part Two "Perestroika" as soon as you can.

THEATER REVIEW

"Angels in America: Part One, Millennium Approaches"

4 stars (out of four)

Presented by Second Generation Theatre Company at Shea's Smith Theatre, 660 Main St., through March 24.  Tickets are $30, with discounts for students and seniors; 508-7480 or at sheas.org.

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