Our Better Angels

A play that can break your heart in 10 different ways

If this sounds like a soap opera, it may well be that this is the genius soap operas would reach if they could. Joe left his valium-addicted wife, Harper (Danielle Bearden-Mead), for Louis; now Harper is nuttier than before and—yes—dreaming of angels and talking Mormon dioramas. Also along for the wild ride are Joe's mother, Hannah Pitt (Chanell Oliver), fresh from Salt Lake City after learning her son is bedding men, and Belize (Anthony Guillmeno), Prior's best friend and a hospital nurse who winds up caring for the foul-mouthed Cohn in his hospital bed.

The plot unfolds like a Robert Altman film, seamlessly following the occasionally crossed paths of its characters. But it's truly Prior's play, and Van Herst draws a wonderful portrait of his character's vulnerability and defiance. He is the one the angels have chosen; he is the one transported to a godless heaven where angels ridicule humanity's ridiculous attempts to hang onto a life riddled with sadness and disappointment; and he is the one who ultimately says the angels are wrong: life may be sad, life may be a bust, but it's the best thing he's got.

That's just a surface description of Perestroika,a word borrowed from end-of-the-Soviet-empire Russian meaning "rebuilding." All the characters are dealing with issues of abandonment, betrayal and hypocrisy, from the impending loss of their own lives to the loss of their loved ones. In some way, they must all rebuild.

It's not unusual to see talented actors in an undergraduate production; juniors and seniors can have up to six years of high school and college training. But it is rare to see an ensemble cast so uniformly capable of dealing with such a smart script, and even rarer to find actors anywhere capable of wrapping their mouths around the thicker portions of Kushner's dialogue. There isn't a weak link in the cast, with Van Hest's Prior and Guillmeno's Belize the brightest lights among an ensemble that uniformly shines.

Director Carr moves this three-hour play swiftly across Andrew Deppen's spartan set—a set built primarily of two slabs of gray concrete that double for everything from hospital beds to angelic platforms. Carr remains true to Kushner's Brechtian approach—the episodic, quick-cut scene changes and the brooding atmosphere—but skillfully manages to weave Kushner's decidedly anti-Brechtian imaginative forays into spirituality and the supernatural.

This is a triumphant production of a play that may have been too hyped in its initial productions. But nearly 10 years after the angel first broke through Prior's ceiling and turned American theater on its head, this relatively small production proves that Angelswill have wings for as long as there are theater companies anywhere—anywhere—willing to produce it.

Angels in America Part Two: Perestroika at Studio theater, Cal State Long Beach, 1250 Bellflower Blvd., Long Beach, (562) 985-5526. Opens Tues. Tues.-Thurs., 6 p.m.; Fri., 8 p.m.; Sat., 2 & 8 p.m. Through April 28. $12-$15.

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