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Angels in America: A Play for the Millennium

"Angels in America, Part 1: Millennium Approaches" captures a story unlike any play seen before. (Photo/Freed Center)

Tony Kushner’s iconic play, "Angels in America", has come to Ohio Northern University, but it's not just an ordinary play. It's much more than that. ONU’s production of "Angels in America, Part One: Millennium Approaches," tells a story of despair, hope, and the challenge to live life to the fullest. Set during the 1980's at the time of the HIV and AIDS epidemic, the play takes audiences on a journey into the world, emotions, and consciousness of many characters. What makes the play so astounding is its relevance to today. From hilarious lines to heartbreaking moments, "Angels in America" is not only a play worth watching, but it is a play that will inspire hope within oneself. 

"Angels in America" involves a variety of talented and professional individuals. One of which is Kappy Kilburn, the director for the production. Kilburn has an MFA from Columbia University in theatre producing and management, and she has been directing and producing for over twenty years now. She has been a part of the Pasadena Playhouse, and the Center Theatre Group in Los Angeles.  When asked about working alongside ONU students and staff this year, Kilburn was proud to contribute to the students’ experiences as theater performers.

There is a dedication and spark with the students that I work with.  They’re unjaded; they revitalize my own artistic energy because theirs is so fresh.  Projects like "Angels in America" is so unique.  To be able to rediscover that history with them, that’s been exciting, said Kilburn.

The first production of "Angels in America" was shown in May of 1991 in the Eureka Theatre Company, when Kilburn herself was still an undergraduate student. But even today, the play still emphasizes important issues that are relevant many years later. 

“In a play that is over twenty-five years old and timely, what kind of conversations can we be having with this play and audience in 2017 that is different or similar to the conversations we were having when the play first opened?” Kilburn stated.

The conversations of politics, AIDS, climate change, and corruption are just some of the many points of discussion within the play. Assistant professor of theatre Brian Sage believes the play is frenetic, political, and unapologetically theatrical. Sage was cast as Roy Cohn, a closeted homosexual who worked alongside Donald Trump in the 1980's. Cohn is considered the antagonist of the play because he denies his homosexuality and abuses his upper-class power to get what he wants. According to Sage, what makes Cohn such a grand antagonist is the complexity of his character. Even the villains in "Angels in America" are simply trying to survive. 

As an actor, you cannot approach a bad guy as a bad guy. For me, you have to determine what the person wants, what there is, Sage said. 

For Sage, working alongside his students has been a exciting experience. It will be the first time he will work on stage with his students in a production, and believes that it was a great chance for students to not only see how professional actors work, but for him to see how students actually apply the materials he teaches from his lectures:

“I have never been on stage with students before. For me, it is incredibly exciting to see what they have been learning, and to see them actually take what they learn in class and apply it to an actual production.”

Working with professionals like Sage and Kilburn has encouraged senior musical theatre major Anne Liskow to push beyond her limits for "Angels in America." Liskow, who plays Hannah Pitt in the play, along with three other characters, says the most challenging obstacle was distinguishing her characters while on stage. With the help of Kilburn and Sage, Liskow was able to represent all of her characters distinctly.  

“I have never been in a show where I play such a wide variety of characters… from an old Jewish Rabbi, to a strong Mormon mother was no easy task,” said Liskow.  

Senior communications and musical theatre major Eli Underwood also plays a wide variety of characters. One of Underwood’s characters is Joe Pitt, an upcoming lawyer from New York who is a mentee of Roy Cohn. Playing Joe was a well-rewarded challenge to overcome for Underwood. "Angels in America" was a play that Underwood read his sophomore year, and becoming part of the production was a great opportunity for him:

It is hard to find a play that one can sit down, read it, finish it, and fall in love with it.

Underwood and his fellow cast members were cast in May, and rehearsals began in August.  The cast and crew spent weekdays rehearsing, along with a Saturday rehearsals.   One of Underwoods’ main obstacles was parting ways with his character after rehearsal, and learning how to capture Joe's emotions:

“I still find it difficult to separate from Joe. He is so elementally ruptured; he is trying to piece it all together with sheer force of will. That stress itself is so easy to take home. The next challenge as an actor was to bring Joe to life because honestly, his emotions are scary things.”  

Liskow also believes the process was challenging but well worth it. 

The process is short, exhausting, astonishing, and never-ending, said Liskow. 

Through the rehearsals and exhausting moments, the final product results in a heartwarming and relevant production for all ages and groups. "Angels in America, Part 1: Millennium Approaches" premieres Sept. 28, and goes until Sunday, Oct. 1, at the Freed Center for the Performing Arts. On Oct. 1 the cast, production crew, and audience members will be having a discussion after the final showing. 

The play is a testament.  The characters are working to survive in their own ways, and I think no matter how dark life can get, there is hope.  It’s the tirelessness of the human spirit to work in that way.  We are a tenacious people, said Sage.

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