When we left Tony Kushner's Angels in America at last month's University of Pittsburgh production of Part 1: Millennium Approaches, Prior Walter, newly HIV/AIDS symptomatic, had been deserted by his boyfriend, Louis, and visited by an Angel crashing through his ceiling. Louis, meanwhile, was punishing himself by sleeping with Joe Pitt, a closeted Mormon Republican lawyer with a Valium-addicted wife in psychotic limbo and a dour mother on her way from Salt Lake City.
Joe's mentor, the infamous Roy Cohn, was succumbing to an AIDS-related death attended by his nurse (and Prior's friend) Belize and the ghost of Ethel Rosenberg.
Confused? How could you not be? By the end of Part 2: Perestroika, now at Pitt, everything resolves itself. But there's a whole heap of tumult before you get there.
The Angel has charged Prior with a mission. All of the world's troubles, it seems, stem from humanity's progress and Prior, as prophet, must carry the message of stasis. And nothing happening to the other characters is any less daunting.
It's generally conceded that Part 2 is less informed by the frenzied, furious, audience-friendly style Kushner employs in the Part 1. But Part 2 contains two of my favorite moments of not just the play but maybe all drama of the past 50 years. There's not a playwright working today with the audacity, imagination and talent to place the ghost of Ethel Rosenberg saying Kaddish over the corpse of Roy Cohn. Even to think about what that means makes my head ache. As Belize says: "It isn't easy, it doesn't count if it's easy, it's the hardest thing. Forgiveness. Which is maybe where love and justice finally meet."
And after nearly seven hours of all this love, loss and pain, Kushner gives the audience one final gift: "This disease will be the end of many of us, but not nearly all, and the dead will be commemorated and will struggle on with the living, and we are not going away. We won't die secret deaths anymore. The world only spins forward. You are fabulous creatures, each and every one. The great work begins."
Part 2 does get weighed down by its own cosmology when Kushner attempts to reconcile AIDS, and other horrors, with the existence of God. One problem with believing in God is that you have to find an excuse for His Silence in the Face of Evil. I can't say that Kushner's is more or less loopy than any other religion's; it's just that in Perestroika, he spends far too much time trying to sell it.
Fortunately, the Pitt production has Robert C.T. Steele in the director's chair. Credit him with bringing more lucidity to Part 2 than I've ever seen in any other production.
A deeply moving Elena Alexandratos and a magnificent Doug Mertz return from the Part 1 production to complement this all-new company of student actors -- all of whom get a big hand from me for their rock-solid commitment to this extraordinary play.
Angels in America Part 2: Perestroika continues through Sat., April 11. Stephen Foster Memorial Theatre, Forbes Avenue at Bigelow, Oakland. 412-624-PLAY or www.pitt.edu/~play