Many angels grace Angels in America, but only one has wings.
This is by playwright Tony Kushner’s design. Forced to endure the purgatory of AIDS-related illnesses and the disease’s horrific effects, his earthbound angels discover the freedom of imagination. By the end of Kushner’s two-part, six-act epic, mortals learn how to fly into terra incognita imaginatively.
How does such a transformation happen? Ask cast member Kathleen Chalfant. Better still, ask one of the six characters she plays.
“An angel is just a belief,” explains Hannah Pitt, a Mormon Mother Courage who abandons Utah comforts to search New York’s mean streets for her gay but closeted lawyer son. “A theory, with wings and arms, that can carry you. You have to be lifted by something. If what you believe lets you down, you have to seek for something new.”
Good but not nice
Kathleen Chalfant has been giving voice to Hannah’s account of angelic intervention since 1988. That was when director Oskar Eustis, who commissioned the play when he was literary manager at San Francisco’s Eureka Theatre, cast her in a workshop of Millennium Approaches, the play’s first half, mounted at the Mark Taper Forum’s experimental wing, Taper, Too. A phenomenon that resists logic both in its astonishing popularity and in its complex themes, Angels made its full-length American debut at the Los Angeles theatre this past all–where, despite the sometimes obtuse mixture of metaphysics and religious symbolism in the play’s second part, Perestroika, it broke every Taper box-office record. Now New York is breathlessly awaiting the next incarnation of Angels, due in April.
Chalfant will be one of five in the eight-member Taper cast who will reprise their roles on the East Coast. Over the course of her five-year involvement with the play, she has learned much about Kushner’s mortal angels.
“Look at the people in this play they’re not nice,” the 47-year-old New York actress said in her dressing room on the last weekend of the Taper run.
“They’re not nice,” she repeated, “but they’re often good. They’re good and they’re trying to find out what the truth is. And they fight through terribly difficult things, all of them.”
These “good but not nice” characters include Orthodox Rabbi Isidor Chemelwitz, a doctor, an aged Bolshevik, the ghost of Ethel Rosenberg and a heavenly spirit each one, as well as Hannah Pitt, manifested by Chalfant. But this is no double-casting, budget-cutting ploy. All but one of the three women and five men in the cast appear in the guise of other characters because Kushner wishes to emphasize theatrical illusion. Through imagination, Kushner insists, we are multitudes: old and young, male and female, straight and gay, flesh and spirit, human and angel.
Not an alien world
To realize such ambitions, it helps a playwright to have an actress of Chalfant’s polymorphous talent. “She’s the rock that Angels is really built upon,” insists director Eustis. How does she embody such variety in a single evening?
“I can’t say, because I’m not exactly sure how I do it. Tony and I never worked on the roles together very much, but the skeletons of all these characters are so clearly there. The writing gives you a very firm basis for the characters. And then you sort of work in the details. It’s like painting–sometimes things come.”
The subtitle of Angels in America is “A Gay Fantasia on National Themes.” How did Chalfant identify with the homosexual material?
“As far as I can tell,” she ventures, “I’m straight. I certainly have husbands and children and all of that. But the gay world is not a world that’s alien to me. It’s a world I know.”
Like too many in the theatre world, Chalfant has seen up-close the ravages of AIDS. “I have lost lots of friends,” she said. “And two of my friends were pioneers in this horrible adventure. The first died in 1982; the second, one of my dearest friends, died in 1983. For him, I was the day shift and his mother was the night shift at Roosevelt Hospital.”
In the play, when Hannah’s son phones from a Central Park phone booth at 4 a.m. to confess that he’s gay, Chalfant’s character bluntly responds: “You’re old enough to understand your father didn’t love you without being ridiculous about it.” Despite such a cold comment, Chalfant insists that Hannah is not homophobic. “She gets set up as the heavy mother, but by the time you get to Perestroika, she’s changed. Yes, she has trouble in her relationship with her son. But she’s not homophobic.”
Chalfant based her characterization of Hannah on a Mormon acquaintance, among other friends, female and male. “Parts of her are my mother,” she said, “and parts of her are my mother-in-law, who is an extremely religious but intelligent person. She came to see the play and I was concerned she might be offended. But backstage all she said was, ‘Cathy, I’ve lived a lot longer than you have and seen lots of things. Anyway, I’m not Pat Robertson.”
Wrestling with Roy Cohn
In portraying Ethel Rosenberg, Chalfant tried to avoid literally mirroring the victim of 1950s Communist witch-hunters Joe McCarthy and Roy Cohn. “My Ethel isn’t very much like the real Rosenberg,” she said. “Tony has written a character that is inspired by this person, but not necessarily the person herself. I read a lot about Ethel Rosenberg, because I was a kid when she was electrocuted. Even though I came from a family in which my mother was very liberal and my father was very conservative, and there was a lot of talk about politics, I never knew about the Rosenberg case specifically.”
The part of the male doctor, known simply as “Henry,” proved to be the most difficult of Chalfant’s multiple roles. The doctor is required to tell the volatile Roy Cohn that he has the AIDS virus, and comes suddenly face-to-face with total denial and career-threats. “Roy Cohn is not a homosexual,” Cohn responds, in a fury. “Roy Cohn is a heterosexual man…who fucks around with guys.” It was not until the second Taper run that Chalfant came to understand the doctor’s motivations why he speaks so bluntly to the dangerous Cohn.
“I finally realized that Henry thinks he has to convince Roy to pull all his strings–Henry’s purpose is to motivate Roy to get his hands on this illegal drug. But all of a sudden he finds himself in a battle for his life. It’s a perfect little scene. The play is so rich that you can do it for three years, and then all of a sudden have a fresh revelation.”
On that final weekend of the Taper’s record-breaking Angels run, dressing rooms echoed with speculation about New York’s theatrical bidding war. Who would get Angels? All the cast knew that the previously announced New York Shakespeare Festival run was unlikely, and that the Nederlanders, Shuberts and Jujamcyn organizations were dueling for the opportunity to bring the work to Broadway. (Jujamcyn prevailed, and Millennium Approaches is scheduled to open in April at the Walter Kerr Theatre under the direction of George C. Wolfe, with Perestroika to follow at a later date.)
But none of the cast seemed surprised that an avant-garde, serious play about AIDS would trigger such intense interest. After all, they had watched audiences respond in spontaneous standing ovations. They had been lauded by critics. And they believed in this play’s spiritual potential.
“It’s important politically that it be on Broadway,” Chalfant observed. “I think it’s a gift to the community for whom it’s written. It has the power to transform the way people think.”