‘Angels in America’ star discusses landmark production at Berkeley Rep

Jessica Doojphibulpol/Senior Staff

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With its stunning grace and resonance, the Pulitzer Prize-winning political epic “Angels in America” is coming to the Berkeley Repertory Theater this April. From its original commission and debut in San Francisco nearly 30 years ago, the play — a two-part, more-than-seven-hour feat about the AIDS epidemic — still remains at the forefront of American political theater. A mystical and gripping tragicomedy, “Angels in America” takes place in 1985 New York City, following Prior Walter and his partner, Louis Ironson, after Prior reveals he has AIDS.

Recent revivals of the show have swept international attention on Broadway and the West End, with film actors such as Andrew Garfield and Lee Pace taking on the role of Prior. In Berkeley Rep’s upcoming productions of both parts — “Millennium Approaches” and “Perestroika” — Randy Harrison will embark upon the role.

“I’ve known and loved the show since it came out. … I always wanted an opportunity to be Prior,” Harrison told The Daily Californian in an interview. “This is my first time performing in it.”

Harrison originally dreamt of playing Prior when he was 15 years old, shortly after “Millennium Approaches” was first published in the early 1990s. As a teenager, he read the script when it was mailed to him through a theater society subscription. In 1995, he watched it twice in New York City.

His character in “Angels in America” experiences a mind-bending crisis. Prior tells his partner Louis about the lesions on his body, and Louis, strangled with fear, runs away. Alone, Prior begins to experience prophetic hallucinations of an angel, who calls upon him with fiery end-of-times visions. Yet, amid the terror, Prior exercises his heart of gold.

“I’ve never played a person who struggles with the amount that he deals with,” Harrison said. “His illness, his abandonment, his vision of the angels and the prophet — the way he handles it all is so smart and savvy and empathetic and funny and graceful and full of life and hope.”

Harrison will be playing the role alongside Stephen Spinella, who played Prior in the original production at San Francisco’s Eureka Theater in 1991. Spinella is now playing the play’s villain Roy Cohn, the real-life attorney aligned with policies from McCarthyism through the Reagan administration. According to Harrison, Spinella played Prior for five years. “I saw him in the original (production) twice, and it was an indelible performance,” Harrison said.

Spinella is not the only original cast member returning to the show. Tony Taccone, the artistic director at Berkeley Rep and the director of its production of “Angels in America,” was involved in the original commission of the play at the Eureka Theater. Reflecting on this, Harrison remarked, “I think it’s a homecoming of sorts.”

The play sears in outrage at the hypocritical nationalism of a country borne from immigrants, pointing fingers at the corrupt American judicial system and raising alarm at global warming before widespread public awareness was achieved. It centers around the consequences of a political regime that touted pristine American values, while underhandedly delivering policies that were downright murderous.

It’d be impossible to describe the impact of recent “Angels in America” productions without addressing the play’s parallels to today’s political climate. “Angels in America” can be both timeless and timely, even with its subject so rooted in historical specificity.

“People who don’t know the show will be astounded that it was written when it was. … People will understand the dangers of when marginalized communities are ignored or vilified or scapegoated, and the deep repercussions of that kind of behavior,” Harrison said. “The play has been valuable to me, as a queer person, to see how our relationship to AIDS has changed.”

Harrison is excited to take on “Angels in America,” noting its monumental difficulty to produce, given the time span and technicalities. “I think it is such an important show, both personally and with everything it’s done for the American theater,” he said. “Tony, the director, the cast — we’ve all being doing it together. It’s such massive themes to take on and such a huge scale, but we’re all in it together. I don’t feel alone.”

“Angels in America” opens with a marathon, two-part day on April 28, with alternating performances of “Millennium Approaches” and “Perestroika” running through July 22.

Contact Sarah Goldwasser at [email protected].

A previous version of this article incorrectly stated that “Angels in America” will run through June at the Berkeley Rep. In fact, it will run until July 22.