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Review: Elsewhere Theatre’s ‘Angels in America’ Takes Wing in Carnegie


To envision Angels in America Part 1: Millennium Approaches within the intimate confines of Carnegie Stage and bring it to fruition, as Elsewhere Pittsburgh Theatre has done, heralds the daring and creativity of that relatively new company as a force on the local scene.

Tony Kushner’s Pulitzer- and Tony-winning two-part epic about the Reagan Era AIDS crisis and the prelude to seismic societal and political change is an ambitious undertaking under any circumstances. Adding to my anticipation of seeing this partiicular Part 1 is its site, on a literal “Main Street, USA,” feeding thoughts about how far we’ve come, even as it is a reminder of how far there is to go when it comes to all-encompassing human rights. 

At more than three hours with two 10-minute intermissions, Millennium Approaches keeps coming at you, from scene to shining scene. The intricately woven plot tests theatrical norms, using explicit language; exposing gender, racial and religious prejudices; and tapping into the supernatural – “A Gay Fantasia on National Themes,” is the umbrella tagline – in ways that have rarely been seen onstage before, or since. 

Set in mid-1980s New York City, the core of Millennium Approaches belongs to Prior Walter – a stunning performance by Sam O’Neill as an out-and-loud gay man, the descendant of a prominent Protestant family, whose AIDS diagnosis upends his world. As his disease progresses, he is visited by voices and visions of an Angel, The voices are not always clear, but O’Neill’s reactions bring to life that there are heavenly plans in Prior’s future.

Sam O’Neill is front and center as Prior Walter, with Ben Adler’s Louis to his left, bookended by castmates in Angels in America Part 1: Millennium Approaches. (Image courtesy of Elsewhere Pittsburgh).

His longtime lover, Louis –  played by Ben Nadler as the embodiment of a neurotic Jewish New Yorker, a la Woody Allen – proves to be weak-willed and full of self-loathing at the thought of watching his lover die. 

Louis will soon cross paths with one half of another couple, facing crises of a different sort: Hunter Ventura as conflicted Mormon and political Conservative Joe Pitt, and Jamie Rafacz, touchingly sympathetic as his pill-popping, emotionally wrought wife. 

Joe falls under the influence of the unscrupulous attorney Roy Cohn, the real-life manipulative bully who wielded political influence with the likes of Joe McCarthy, while denying his own homosexuality and AIDS diagnosis. Cohn is played with gusto by Nick Mitchell, an actor and educator who has worked locally at Pittsburgh Musical Theater, Front Porch and Stage 62, among others.

They are part of an exceptional cast that includes Zachariah Washington as the wise and wily queen, Belize (love that coat!), who supports Prior in his time of anguish, and puts Louis in his place. Other cast members are Amari Mae Shakir as Angel; Kathy Hawk as Joe’s mother, Hannah; and Matt Henderson and Jesse Chovanec in multiple roles.

The performers gathered by director and Elsewhere founder Tucker Topel, who double as scenic designer, and associate director Michael Campayno loom large in the Carnegie black box theater, which, among other sites, stands in for a crowded bar, a hospital room, a Central Park bench, a picturesque Utah overlook and a snow-covered spot in Antarctica.

They’ve got it all covered, and cleverly. That snow? It’s accomplished with a billowing white sheet. Lighting and sound by Forrest Trimble and costumes by Jeremy Eiben add to the magic of a large-scale production.

Millennium Approaches burst onto Broadway in the 1990s, followed by Angels in America Part 2: Perestroika. A terrific off-Broadway revival by Signature Theatre in 2010 starred the Carnegie Mellon trio of Christian Borle, Zachary Quinto and Billy Porter, following the acclaimed 2003 HBO limited series directed by Mike Nichols, and starring Al Pacino, Meryl Streep, CMU’s Patrick Wilson and Jeffrey Wright.

It is the filmed version that most people have seen and may now wonder, how in the world can a sweeping piece such as Kushner’s be accomplished on a black box stage?

Elsewhere Pittsburgh has provided the opportunity to find out, in an impressive production of a late 20th-century American classic. This being Part 1, we can only hope that Part 2 is in our future.


Elsewhere Theatre’s production of Angels in America Part 1: Millennium Approaches continues at Carnegie Stage, 25 West Main Street, Carnegie, June 12-15, 2024. Post-show of the finale, the audience is invited to stick around for a “DRAGALICIOUS PRIDE SHOW.” Tickets: