University of Massachusetts Theater Department. Directed by M. Honarke Miller
I have just finished preparing a lecture on this play for my class in modern American drama. Attendance at this production is part of a paper assignment due in a week and a half which requires a review of the production itself. I have lucked out, requiring my students to see a production that surely is one of the best the Theater Department has done in recent years. Given the fact that the University Theater Department does not run a conservatory program and that their graduate program in directing and scenography is very small (and there is no graduate acting program at all), this was a fine production of Kushner’s ambitious and now quite famous play.
The production runs a full three hours, with two ten-minute intervals; they could have done with just one interval. The mostly student audience was held by it, and it was clear why. Kushner’s play holds the stage extremely well, and the casting was surprisingly strong — often a fatal flaw in the UMass Theater Department offerings. Especially effective were Michael Marceline as Louis, Thomas Patrick Naughton as Prior, and Evan Fuller as Roy; Courtney Roy was also strong as Harper, and Ed Ahern as Joe acquitted himself credibly. Katherine Scarborough, who played Hannah, Joe’s mother, and doubled as the Rabbi and Martin and one or two other roles, looked the part — dumpy, to be blunt — but her voice was a little too high-pitched and she needed to project more. Physically she was right for the wonderful cameo role of Ethel Rosenberg (played so superbly by Meryl Streep in the HBO film of last year directed by Mike Nichols, a stunningly good mounting altogether), but we badly needed the husky, “ice-cold” (Kushner’s stage vocal tones) of a Meryl Streep in this role. And the director, generally expert at keeping up a good, swift pace through the three hours of this show, needed to slow down for Ethel’s entrance and emphasize that she was a different order of humanity.
But overall the staging was fine, accommodating well to a nearly bare stage criss-crossed on floor and backdrop with deep red stripes, which simultaneously emphasize ideas of connectedness and suggest conflict as well; perhaps there was a suggestion also of human veins, abstracted into symmetrical lines that speak of lifeblood and danger all at once. There are some twenty-six scenes in Kushner’s three acts, and the swift pace of change poses a challenge to a production team, a challenge well taken up by a cohort of no fewer than eight stagehands dressed in black, who in well-coordinated ways carried on chairs, barstools, hospital beds, desks, and other accoutrements called for by Kushner’s script, and then dutifully came on again even as the scene had two or three lines yet to go and struck the present props, followed on immediately by the next set. The Antarctica scene was set in rapid time by all eight, it seemed, who brought on two huge white plastic rolled up “canvases,” which they swiftly extended and then crawled under, using broom handles and other devices to push the plastic up at various angles to simulate jagged ice. “Ice,” says Harper, as she enters dressed in a lime green Eskimo-like, fur-lined parka and matching leggings, to the evident pleasure of the audience.
The only disappointment occurred at the end, when the angel appeared atop a high rolling ladder of the sort used backstage for hanging lights; pairs of red cables at obtuse angles were used by stagehands to draw in a pair of disembodied wings which were brought into close proximity to the angel, dressed in a bodysuit with pendulous breasts; it almost worked, but not quite. The great grey-feathered wings Kushner calls for in his stage directions had been realized far more eloquently and magisterially in the National Theatre production I saw back in the early nineties, and the same was true of the wings sprouted by Emma Thompson in the HBO version. These wings, conceived of by clever scenic artists backstage at UMass were rather thin, puny; and they never really seemed attached to the angel.
But, this disappointment aside, the Theater Department’s production of Kushner’s apocalyptic comedy shows what enlightened design, concept, and planning, in company with a remarkably strong tryout, can do in circumstances where budgets are stretched to breaking points and an antiquated theatre auditorium (to say nothing of the stage itself) muffles the human voice instead of amplifying it. I liked this production quite a lot, and will urge my students to be sure to see one of the three performances still left, next weekend.