Much has changed since Tony Kushner's long-winded masterpiece, Angels in America, premiered 20 years ago. AIDS is now a manageable disease, and no longer exclusively gay or male. Stripped of the mystery it possessed in the mid-'80s (when the play is set), the virus has lost some of its terror. These days, we tremble similarly at the dark spectre of diabetes.
But much also remains the same. Of the seven serious candidates in the Republican presidential primary, only one is not an obvious homophobe. The party is still loaded with closeted gay men. The Latter-Day Saints still have a homo problem. Angels has much to say about contemporary America, but its most interesting characters are not Prior Walter, the dying young protagonist, or his cowardly partner, Louis, but Roy Cohn, the lightly fictionalized right-wing operative whose AIDS diagnosis Kushner casts as a sort of divine justice, and Joe Pitt, his young Mormon protÃ©gÃ© struggling to suppress his own sexuality.
Brian Weaver's production at Portland Playhouse rightly emphasizes the importance of these two roles. Ebbe Roe Smith is delightfully villainous as Cohn, giving the wretch an easy magnetic charisma that explodes in brief, intense bursts of violence, but he is nonetheless upstaged by Chris Harder as Joe. Harder, a lively performer who has eyes like Paul Newman and a grin like Jimmy Stewart, looks like he might have stepped out of an LDS advertisement. He's calm and affable until, suddenly, the scaffolding he's assembled to survive as a gay man attempting to live a straight, Mormon life collapses. "Everyone tries very hard to live up to God's strictures, which are very...strict," he tells Cohn. "The failure to measure up hits people very hard." In Joe's case, the impact is near-fatal, and Harder makes us feel his anguish.
Weaver seems to have transparent façades in mind, taking liberal license with Kushner's outlandish stage directions. Characters appear and disappear by tossing glitter or rolling out on wheeled stools, and mountains of ice are conjured with light and white curtains. His casual indifference to literalism goes too far, though, in the casting of Wade McCollum as Prior, whose very big performance (with much over-enunciation and flopping about) is not big enough to upstage his impressive musculature. As soon as he takes off his shirt, all suspension of disbelief is shattered: Dying men don't have six-packs.
SEE IT: World Trade Center Theater, 121 SW Salmon St., 205-0715. 7:30 pm Thursdays-Saturdays, 2 pm Sundays; 7:30 pm Tuesday-Wednesday Dec. 20-21; and 2 pm Friday, Dec. 30. No show Christmas day. Closes Dec. 31. $15-$32.