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The AIDS epidemic struck the world without warning in the 1980s. Another blindside came when playwright Tony Kushner captured the way people — homosexual and straight — dealt with it at the time with his 1993 drama masterpiece “Angels in America: A Gay Fantasia on National Themes.”
It impacted the theater world, as well, winning the Tony Award for Best Play, the Pulitzer Prize for Drama and the Drama Desk Award for Outstanding Play.
The Clark State Theatre Arts Program will present “Angels in America: A Gay Fantasia on National Themes, Part One: Millennium Approaches” from April 15-17 at the Clark State Performing Arts Center.
Clark State will conclude the “Angels in America” saga in October with its presentation of “Part Two: Perestroika.”
“Angels in America” has been on the radar of director Sarah Michelson and producer and Theatre Arts Program coordinator Theresa Lauricella for a while.
The pair agreed it’s an important piece of work in that it goes beyond just those interested in theater. It doesn’t just depict people in crisis, it educates, enlightens and entertains, which made it a natural for Clark State’s theater department to present.
“It’s very interesting in the educational setting. English professors also teach it because the writing is so dynamic,” said Michelson, who is directing her first Clark State production after directing other local productions, including Springfield StageWorks’ “Three by Tennessee.”
Lauricella said she likes that the play touches on political science, theology, health care and any of a number of other areas, making it a good fit for Clark State.
“Millennium Approaches” is a nine-person play that focuses on the years 1985-86 when the impact of AIDS really hit and how it affects a homosexual couple, a known public figure who has the disease and other characters including a wife and a mother.
“There are broad themes that directly relate to humanity in these stories, and it’s as hard-hitting now as it was when it came out,” said Michelson.
To prepare, the cast and crew visited an AIDS research center and met with a nurse, Kathy Sellers, who worked with patients in those frightening early days depicted in the play and shared her personal stories.
It’s had an impact on the cast in rehearsal, Lauricella said.
All but one actor will play multiple characters. But it won’t be costume changes; it will be as simple as adding pieces to play another part by adding pieces to the base costume.
Special effects add to the story, especially with interaction the angels of the title, spiritual beings and dream worlds playing in that will take advantage of the Kuss Auditorium stage.
Lauricella didn’t want to tip her hand about how these will be presented, but said they will complement they story.
Michelson stressed that despite the heavy theme, there is humor. The characters can laugh at themselves despite their struggles, which adds to the story’s humanity, and the first part ends on a note of hope.
While the subject matter isn’t the most comfortable, Lauricella sees it as an educational institution’s priority to present such material the same as it would the works of other classic playwrights such as Arthur Miller or Tennessee Williams.
“Come see a turning point in American theater,” she said. “Will you be challenged? Absolutely. You may walk away with a different view you didn’t have before.”
As part of the educational content, local groups with health information will be available in the PAC lobby at performances. Lauricella said it’s to have such resources available.
“Angels in America” is intended for mature audiences and contains adult content, language and a nude scene.