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REVIEW: Richmond Triangle Players’ “Angels in America” is lifted by assured, brisk directing.

click to enlarge Actor Matt Shofner as Prior Walter and Deejay Gray as Louis, his lover who has left him after an early AIDS diagnosis in “Angels in America: Millennium Approaches.”

John MacClellan

Actor Matt Shofner as Prior Walter and Deejay Gray as Louis, his lover who has left him after an early AIDS diagnosis in “Angels in America: Millennium Approaches.”

Walking through the streets of New York, an older friend of mine who’s gay told me how he felt like a survivor, how for his generation, “If Vietnam didn’t get you, AIDS did.”

It’s the feeling of being under siege that’s imparted by “Angels in America: Millennium Approaches” — that either hell or salvation is right around the next street corner ready to jump you. Much has changed for sexual minorities of every stripe since this Pulitzer Prize-winning play was first performed more than two decades ago.

While there’s still plenty of room for improvement, great leaps have been made in equality for the LGBTQ community, and nationally recognized, same-sex marriage seems within reach. Even HIV isn’t the nemesis it once was in America. While still dangerous, it’s much more treatable than it was in those early days. It’s from this vantage point that we look back on Tony Kushner’s “Angels” as a claustrophobic snapshot of its time.

The first half of Kushner’s two-part play, “Millennium Approaches,” puts in motion a tale of characters dealing with AIDS, rejection, homophobia and the stress of being closeted. Expertly executed on Richmond Triangle Players’ stage, director Bo Wilson has only built on this haunting work.

Under Frank Foster’s Mondrian-looking backdrop of the New York skyline, Wilson’s cast is uniformly sublime. Portraying Joseph McCarthy’s former lackey Roy Cohn, Andrew Firda shines, playing him with the anti-hero charm of Richard III. There’s something both demonic and credible in his performance as the famous prosecutor and closeted AIDS sufferer. Firda’s Cohn is as funny as he is hypocritical, insisting that he has liver cancer because only gays get AIDS and a homosexual is someone with “zero clout.”

Working under Cohn is the similarly closeted Mormon clerk Joe, who grapples with his sexual identity and what it means for himself, his faith and his marriage. As Joe, Nicholas Wilder wears every emotion on his face, trying to navigate waters his religion didn’t prepare him for.

Toning down her natural tendency toward comedy, Audra Honaker paints a believable portrait of a woman afraid to leave her apartment as Joe’s wife, Harper. Dealing with the aftermath of an AIDS diagnosis, Prior Walter (Matt Shofner) is hallucinating from the drugs he’s on, envisioning himself in drag and visits from Prior Walters. Deejay Gray plays Louis, the lover who’s left him, hiding from the guilt through risky sex and intellectual histrionics.

The actors’ efforts are enhanced by Michael Jarett’s lighting, Joey Luck’s sound and Kylie Clark’s special effects. At the show’s conclusion, the contributions of all three come together in an orgy of spectacle. Under Wilson’s assured direction, the show moves at a brisk pace. Kushner’s script is a gem, balancing elements of drama, camp and history into a masterpiece.

At the show’s conclusion, while Prior lies terrified in bed and the walls in his room fly apart, the audience too awaits what will happen next. S

“Angels in America: Millennium Approaches” runs through April 25 at Richmond Triangle Players, 1300 Altamont Ave. Call 346-8113 or visit rtriangle.org.

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