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- Donley, Carol
Angels in America is really two full-length plays. Part I: Millennium Approaches won the 1993 Pulitzer Prize for Drama. This play explores "the state of the nation"--the sexual, racial, religious, political and social issues confronting the country during the Reagan years, as the AIDS epidemic spreads.
Two of the main characters have AIDS. One, Prior, is a sane, likeable man who wonders if he is crazy as he is visited by ghosts of his ancestors, and selected by angels to be a prophet (but the audience sees the ghosts and angels too). The other main character, Roy Cohn, based on the real political figure, is a hateful powerbroker who refuses the diagnosis of AIDS because only powerless people get that sickness.
A rabbi opens the play, saying that in the American "melting pot" nothing melts; three Mormons try to reconcile their faith with the facts of their lives. Belize, an African-American gay nurse, is the most compassionate and decent person in the play, along with Hannah, the Mormon mother who comes to New York to try to untangle the mess of her son and daughter-in-law’s marriage. In contrast to their commitment, Prior’s lover, Louis, abandons him in cowardly fear of illness. The play portrays a wide range of reactions to illness, both by the patients and by those around them. Included is the realization that much of the nation’s reaction is political and prejudiced.
The second play, Part II: Perestroika (winner of a Tony Award), continues the story, with the angel explaining to Prior that God has abandoned his creation, and that Prior has been chosen to somehow stop progress and return the world to the "good old days." Prior tells the angel he is not a prophet; he’s a lonely, sick man. "I’m tired to death of being tortured by some mixed-up, irresponsible angel. . . Leave me alone."
Ironically, Belize is Roy Cohn’s nurse, as Cohn--even as he is dying in his hospital bed--tries to manipulate the system to get medication and special treatment, and to trick the ghost of Ethel Rosenberg into singing him a lullaby. Meanwhile, the Mormon mother, Hannah, manages to help save the sanity and integrity of her daughter-in-law, Harper; and she also is a good caregiver for Prior.
At the end of the play, we see Prior, Louis, Belize, and Hannah sitting on the rim of the fountain in Central Park with the statue of the Bethesda angel. They say that when the Millennium came, everyone who was "suffering, in the body or the spirit, [and] walked through the waters of the fountain of Bethesda, would be healed, washed clean of pain."
These four characters represent Jews and Christians and agnostics; homosexuals and heterosexuals; blacks and whites; men and women; caregivers and patients; two generations--the American mix, in this case, caring about each other. Somehow, although the real angels in this play seem inept and reactionary, these folks together at the Bethesda angel fountain seem competent contributors to the future.