In a mammoth effort, Actor’s Express tackles the celebrated Tony Kushner drama “Angels in America” in all its sprawling glory, with concurrent productions of both parts to the epic saga. “Part One: Millennium Approaches,” directed by Martin Damien Wilkins (“Father Comes Home From the Wars”), unfolds over three-plus hours. “Part Two: Perestroika,” staged by Express artistic director Freddie Ashley (“The Crucible”), runs closer to four.
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Kushner’s narrative and theatrical sweep defies the fixed timeline of the two plays, which span only a few months in late 1985. Largely grounded in modern Manhattan, “Angels” chiefly charts the emotional and spiritual journey of the fictional Prior Walter (Grant Chapman), a brave and hopeful AIDS patient-turned-reluctant hero and prophet. But it also involves the odious real-life lawyer Roy Cohn (Robert Bryan Davis), who more malevolently wages his own battle with AIDS and sexual identity at the height of the Reagan era.
While there’s a historical and political perspective to their stories, their contemporary lives are periodically disrupted when characters begin materializing to them from mystical dimensions: For Cohn, it’s the haunting apparition of Ethel Rosenberg (Carolyn Cook), whom he infamously sent to the electric chair in the 1950s; for Prior, among other visions, it’s rather a case of divine intervention in the spectral form of a higher-powered Angel (Parris Sarter).
Not simply signs of a specific time and place, both parts of “Angels” ingeniously venture into realms of the fantastic, frequently transporting the action to the utter isolation of Antarctica or the untamed frontier of Utah — or, indeed, the majestic eternity of heaven itself — to explore broader issues of abandonment and responsibility, self-denial and atonement, life and death.
The fascinating situations of Prior and Cohn, alone, might be sufficient to power and propel two plays. And that isn’t even to mention any number of additional, equally compelling subplots: about Prior’s indecisive lover, Louis (Louis Greggory); about Louis’ subsequent affair with the conflicted Joe (Joe Sykes); about Joe’s crumbling marriage to the desperate Hannah (Cara Mantella); or about the avenging activist Belize (Thandiwe DeShazor), Prior’s flamboyant best friend — and Cohn’s no-nonsense nurse.
On occasion, Kushner’s complex structuring and scope can feel overly dense and convoluted, his articulate and profound dialogue a bit too forced and grandiose. Stylistically, from a design standpoint, there’s a corresponding sense of spectacle to much of “Angels” that isn’t always duly served in the two Express shows.
For the most part, Joseph P. Monaghan III’s masterful lighting contrasts nicely between Kushner’s varying flights of reality and hallucination. On the other hand, James Ogden’s threadbare scenery (a chair or bench here, a bed or desk there) doesn’t adequately distinguish the many constantly changing settings and locations. Given certain constraints in terms of the Express’ space and budget, the climactic arrival of that Angel ultimately underwhelms.
A resourceful ensemble of eight actors, each playing several roles, excels. If you’ve ever wondered whether there’s anything the brilliant Cook can’t do, just savor her bravura turns here – not only as the slyly mischievous Rosenberg, but as Joe’s well-meaning Mormon mother, as Cohn’s enabling doctor, and (more amazingly still) virtually unrecognizable in a pair of lengthy monologues as both an aged Jewish rabbi and the world’s “oldest living Bolshevik.” Also standing out: Besides truly registering as the tortured Joe, Sykes offers fleeting kicks, too, as the incarnation of a prior Prior Walter, and even a mechanical diorama mannequin.
Despite some kinks, there is no shortage of rewards to be found in the two shows — heavenly and otherwise.
“Angels in America”
“Part One: Millennium Approaches” and “Part Two: Perestroika” continue in rotating repertory through Feb. 17. 7:30 p.m. Thursdays and Fridays; 2 and 8 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays; 7:30 p.m. Tuesday (Feb. 13 only) and Wednesday (Feb. 14 only). $21.60-$43.20. Actor’s Express (at King Plow Arts Center), 887 W. Marietta St. NW, Atlanta. 404-607-7469, www.actors-express.com.
Bottom line: A valiant undertaking of an exhaustive epic.
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