Craig Joseph (Louis Ironson) and Scott Esposito (Prior Walter). Photo by Celeste Cosentino
In our republican led politics, it doesn’t surprise me that the issues addressed in this play are vital as ever, even painful to some extent. In the first part of Tony Kushner’s epic, set in 1980’s New York City, a gay man is abandoned by his lover when he contracts the AIDS virus and a closeted Mormon lawyer’s marriage to his pill-popping wife stalls. America in the mid-1980s. In the midst of the AIDS crisis and a conservative Reagan administration, New Yorkers grapple with life and death, love and sex, heaven and hell. A time where people waited years for the President to even say the word AIDS, as thousands were dying or being infected.
Celeste Cosentino, Ensemble Theatre’s Executive Artistic Director, take the helm of this important play which was recognized with a Pulitzer Prize for Drama, Tony Award for Best Play, and the Drama Desk Award for Outstanding Play. Cosentino conquers the task at hand with resilient pacing and powerful performances.
Some of the issues at hand make you want to SMH. A closeted gay Republican with moral issues. Pass the tissues and the handwritten note under the stall, please. And the fact that suicides rates are through the roof because, you know, some religions and Christian pulpits tell you that if you are gay, you are wrong, and will not enter the gates of heaven. That’s Bullshit. People should find redemption in their spiritual values, not exclusion and guilt. I digress.
Thus the journey of a thousand triggers.
Scott Esposito as Prior Walter is beautiful to watch. His performance is solid, along with an arc and range of emotions that is an engaging map of joy, fear, and despair that is difficult to watch. As it should be. There is never a moment disconnected or wasted. Truly wonderful. His partner Louis Ironson, as played by Craig Joseph, is a hyped up conundrum of please have a cup of shut the fuck up. Spewing lines with machine gun effect, all done with articulate diction that lets you understand every manic thing he is saying. But Joseph also offers another side of Ironson, beautifully displayed in the bench scene where he is conversing with his friend Belize (nicely and sassily played by Robert Hunter). When he makes his decision to stay or leave his partner, it is real and effective.
James Alexander Rankin is one of the finest actors in the area. Consistently providing solid characterizations and compelling performances. He is again at the top of his game as Joseph Pitt. Rankin embodies this tortured soul who is not only professionally challenged by the stink of politics, but also wrought over feelings that his religion will not let exist. The journey to awareness is beautifully portrayed.
Kelly Strand is a hot mess of delusional delight portraying Harper Pitt. Who hasn’t taken a cocktail or two to get through a rough patch, or in Harper’s case, enough pills to enable your curtains to talk back to you. Strand serves up damage on a silver plate, and turns in a performance that makes you ache with the simple reality of sometimes life really is too much to handle.
Roy Cohn was and is a dick. A contradiction with no moral compass. Jeffrey Grover has the skills to make this character a jerk and major foil. My only complaint is that Cohn wished he looked that good. Grover throws major bravado and defines the overcompensation for the weak internal ideas and truths that haunt Cohn from within.
Derdriu Ring* is spectacular. In everything. Here she shares her talents in a myriad of smaller roles, each one dead on with astute focus and reason. Every character a work of art, and not a wasted moment ever. As stated, Hunter gives Belize that spark of humanity shaded with the deadpan delivery and the occasional “humph” that we all need. He peaks on the bench scene with Joseph. His listening face is incredibly giving to the conversation, beautifully balanced. Fully developed conversation with precision delivery. Slay Belize, Slay! Ines Joris creatively joins the festivities with a number of characters. She brings her accented spunk to the proceedings and has one of the most prolific curtain calls in recent memory. Don’t be afraid to wave back.
Stage Crew, Sam Langraf & Kyle Huff, did a great job of keeping the scene changes moving. Having both screen work and moving furniture and sliding platforms. Sound Design was on point, except a little tinny effect on the angel at times. Nothing major. Stage Manager Becca Moseley called a great show. The pace was commendable. Technical Director August Scarpelli brought all the elements together with professional care. Costume Design was well conceived by Kelsey Tomlinson & Kayla Davis. Set/Light/ Projection Design by Ian Hanz created an atmosphere that greatly complimented this historic play. Director Cosentino provided this play incredible pace. The evening flew by due to wonderful effective direction, and a clear understanding of how crucial the flow means to the telling.
In some of the more subtle moments, I found it hard to hear a bit of Belize’s words. It happened here and there, but just a tad more volume would fix. This definitely applies to Joris’s characters. Diction and Volume are imperative to understand what is being said. The only other moment for me to try to understand the moment when Pitt and Ironson “connect”. Was it physical, emotional, or both? I wanted more information. That’s just me.
This production offers a lot to the audience. There are some very fine performances to enjoy. This work is so profound. I lived through this error, and I distinctly remember the fear. The issues still live, although we have certainly grown a pair since then, still there is much work to be done.
Thank you for a wonderful evening.
Cleveland Stage Alliance
*appears courtesy of Actors Equity Association
Through January 28
Runtime: 3h 20m (including two 10 minute intermissions)
Content Advisory: This production contains STRONG LANGUAGE and ADULT THEMES and may not be suitable for younger audiences.
$12-$25 General Admission
Order Tickets Online
2843 Washington Blvd
Cleveland, OH 44118