Even though Tony Kushner’s groundbreaking two-part play “Angels in America” takes place in New York, San Francisco has ties to the work. After all, to writer Kushner and his characters, The City is the closest they’ll ever get to heaven on earth.
Eureka Theatre Company on Jackson Street was the first to commission and perform the play’s first part, “Millennium Approaches.” In the second part, “Perestroika,” San Francisco emerges as an “unspeakably beautiful” symbol of renovation and progress.
It’s been 20 years since the Tony- and Pulitzer Prize-winning play premiered on Broadway and 10 years since HBO aired its adaptation starring Al Pacino and Meryl Streep. It’s about time for a new generation of San Francisco theatergoers to experience “Angels in America” onstage.
“Because so many people come to San Francisco to start over and to find a community, the themes of surviving the horrors of disease, discrimination, religious persecution and abandonment resonate very deeply,” said Laura Lundy-Paine, director of the most recent local production of “Millennium Approaches,” which had a run at the LGBT Center in 2011.
The intimate production was performed runway-style, produced by the nonprofit Theatre Shark and financed via a successful campaign on Kickstarter. According to Theatre Shark actor John Steen, producers paid $960 for the nonprofessional rights to put on 12 performances of “Millennium Approaches.”
In 2010, the San Francisco Museum of Performance and Design hosted an exhibit dedicated to the play titled “More Life! ‘Angels in America’ at Twenty.” Kushner and former “Will & Grace” actress Debra Messing attended the opening gala.
Kushner’s perception of San Francisco as a harmonious queer playground during the 1980s may seem a little discordant to the well-documented and brutal battle against the AIDS epidemic that was actually taking place. But perhaps it’s this representation of The City as a place of never-ending hope — of the rebuilding after the destruction — that heightens the need for a local revival.
“San Francisco audiences are highly educated and intuitive,” Lundy-Paine said. “These are audiences who have experienced the excruciatingly painful events in ‘Angels in America’ in a deeply personal way.”
That’s why it may be surprising that a Bay Area production of “Angels in America” is not being scheduled to recur almost like clockwork. The two-part, six-hour work tackling the historical, political, racial, social and religious implications of the AIDS epidemic in the midst of a cunning culture war is a challenge for sure, show creators say.
In the author notes, however, Kushner seems to favor a bare, intimate performance along the lines of Theatre Shark’s, as opposed to the theatrical goliath. I can’t think of a more fitting play to be the pilot production for American Conservatory Theater’s new Strand Theatre, currently undergoing renovations.
Kushner fans who can’t wait for “Angels” to land back in San Francisco can look forward to the West Coast premiere of Kushner’s other gay-themed play, “The Intelligent Homosexual Guide’s to Capitalism and Socialism with a Key to the Scriptures,” scheduled to come to the Berkeley Repertory Theatre in May 2014.