Tony Kushner’s Angels in America features many religious motifs, one of which is the biblical Jacob wrestling an angel, a reference to humankind’s struggle with its own prejudices and mortality in the depths of the mid-1980s AIDS crisis.
The symbol could also apply to a local theatre company, The Hypocrites, and its celebrated artistic director, Sean Graney. In December, Graney and eight actors began wrestling with Millennium Approaches and Perestroika, the two parts that make up the Pulitzer Prize–winning play. The Hypocrites’ Angels runs through May 7th at the Bailiwick Arts Center (1229 W. Belmont Ave., 773-883-1090; on Saturdays starting April 15th, the two parts run consecutively with a box lunch break). Chicago magazine’s Cassie Walker chronicled the process of staging Angels in America-a process in six scenes.
Ten weeks from opening night, Sean Graney quits smoking, a bold decision considering that he’s staring down a six-hour play, the biggest of his career. The 33-year-old gnaws on cinnamon toothpicks while two actors struggle through a pivotal scene. In it, a magnificent angel reveals herself for the first time to Prior-the HIV-positive central character. Kushner has written the scene to be overtly sexual, almost uncomfortably so, and Graney must figure out how to direct it. Should the scene be scary? Funny? Foreboding? Consulting with Jennifer Grace, the actor, the director decides to play up the angel’s human attributes: her wings will get knocked about, and, to arouse the main character, she’ll wiggle her hips like a stripper. “You always end up turning me into a vaudeville bit,” Grace tells Graney as she sips tea to combat a cold.
Graney bristles when someone calls his style Brechtian; he prefers “simple and informationally directed.” Translation: the actors (average age: 32) must understand the material and convey it honestly, which isn’t so easy when it comes to this reference-laden script. To help his actors make sense of it all, the director’s table is piled with VHS tapes of the critically acclaimed HBO production directed by Mike Nichols; a copy of The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Jewish History and Culture; scholarly essays; and a large black binder assembled by the dramaturg. Tabs mark compiled chapters of research like “history of Roy Cohn"-historically, the right-hand man of Senator Joseph McCarthy, and a major character in the play.
Two actors in particular grapple with lines in Hebrew and Yiddish. So Graney drafts a friend, Noah Simon, affectionately called “the Jew coach,” to help the duo. After a tongue-tying rabbinical speech, one of the actors, Donna McGough, looks up, exhausted: “I feel like I’m running a race here.” Simon sympathizes: “I went through years of Hebrew school. I know what you’re talking about.”
“Did it look bad?” A straight actor poses the question to Graney after a scene requiring him to kiss another man. “Yeah, it did. It did,” Graney says sheepishly. “I’m sorry. I still like you.” Among them, the eight cast members tackle 32 characters. Women play men; older actors play young parts (and vice versa); at one point, nearly everyone dons angel wings for a scene in heaven. The role shuffling adds yet another challenge to learning the lines for an eight-act play.
Hopping between three rehearsal spaces several miles apart, the cast have been meeting five times a week since January. Yet seven weeks from the opening, no one has completely memorized his parts. The reality of the project’s size sinks in. “We’ll spend four months on this show,” says Cliff London, an actor. “That’s a third of a year, a long time.”
Six weeks from the play’s opening, the production crew-a band of storefront theatre vets who, like the actors, all hold down various day jobs-meet for the first time. The topic on everyone’s mind: money. The budget for the entire show is roughly $26,000, including salaries, the most money The Hypo-crites have ever had to work with, but a pittance for a two-month run.
At issue, too, is how the crew will transform the Bailiwick’s oddly shaped main stage into what, at various times, must represent a hospital room; an apartment; heaven; and a Mormon center in Manhattan. The cast shift the scenery themselves, and when they are not acting, sit onstage at the periphery of the set-a Graney signature not called for in Kushner’s script. Another Graney touch: four wooden coffins serve as all the major furniture pieces, from couches and beds to phone booths and benches-an eerie visual that promises to arrest the audience’s attention at first sight. The young director studies his own pen-and-ink drawings of the set: “The visual picture is as much a part of a successful show as the directing.”
Five weeks until opening night, a frustrated Graney has left his usual seat in the front row of the Bailiwick and climbed a ladder to the top of the current set, where he perches, his face scrunched up in thought. He climbs down. “What I’m asking for is a super extreme set of situations"-a man dying from AIDS; a closeted homosexual weighing the effect of “coming out” on his political future as well as on his marriage-"that none of us has been in,” he says, choosing his words carefully so as not to ratchet up the tension level. “You’re trying to intellectualize this, but it doesn’t feel emotionally backed up.”
During a Saturday afternoon rehearsal, Graney gently stops two of the actors, Steve Wilson and J. B. Waterman, in the middle of a scene. “Why are you doing what you’re doing?” Graney asks. Wilson doesn’t miss a beat. “I’m feeling guilty. I ask if he knows the story of Lazarus-it means that I see a dead person, a dead person I can breathe life into.” Graney lights up. “Exactly. Exactly!” The actor later explains his “breakthrough"-he’s finally understood his character enough to stop overthinking and simply assume the part. Take away the fancy set, the coffins and the lights, the fiery ladders and angel wings: this understanding is the most essential component for a successful show. They run the scene a second time. It’s not yet perfect, but it’s close. Graney calls for a ten-minute break, and various cast and crew members shuffle outside for a cigarette. The director himself, who is still not smoking, stays in his chair, contentedly staring at the empty stage.