'Angels in America' Challenges Students at Wabash College

By Lawrence Biemiller

Crawfordsville, Ind. -- No one who was here for it will soon forget Trevor Fanning's Wabash College theatrical debut last Wednesday night, or the astonishing production in which he made it.

In his first scene, Mr. Fanning's character rolled up his sleeve to show his lover a Kaposi's sarcoma lesion, a symptom of AIDS -- "K.S., baby. Lesion number one. Lookit. The wine-dark kiss of the angel of death." In his next scene, he came on as Judy Garland in concert -- pink chiffon, heels, "Somewhere Over the Rainbow," autographs for people in the front row, the works. Mr. Fanning, a 19-year-old sophomore, had complete command of the 375-seat theater and was completely credible -- not as Judy Garland, perhaps, but certainly as Prior Walter, the character he was actually playing. As the scene opened, Prior had been trying desperately to cheer himself up, first with the grand Garland imitation, then with the new fall colors, swiped from the Clinique counter at Macy's.

The scene was by turns funny and heartbreaking. It's one of the more memorable in Millennium Approaches, the first part of Angels in America, Tony Kushner's two-play opus, subtitled A Gay Fantasia on National Themes. The performance here at Wabash was only the second ever by a college theater company (the University of Central Oklahoma presented it in March), and it did not disappoint, not even -- and this is not said lightly -- in comparison with the Broadway production. The 3 1/2-hour, 26-scene performance was humorous whenever it could be, fabulous when it needed to be, moving when it should have been. It would have been an achievement at, say, New York University. At Wabash -- an 824-student, all-male liberal-arts college in a small town -- it was stunning.

One other thing was notable about Mr. Fanning's Judy Garland scene: No one walked out. Repeated attacks by a conservative student publication, The Commentary, had left the cast, and the campus, jittery. Stapled to every program was a warning that "planned demonstrations" might occur during the performance, and rumors nagged at the theater department all Wednesday afternoon. The warning included a reminder that every Wabash student "is expected to conduct himself at all times, both on and off the campus, as a gentleman and a responsible citizen." A gentleman, presumably, does not disrupt his classmates' theatrical productions, no matter what he might think of the play's politics (liberal), its language (strong), or its morals (contemporary).

Certainly Millennium offered the Commentary editors a target that was hard to miss. The intricacies of its 26-scene plot beggar description, but a list of the major characters gives some idea of the play's breadth: Prior becomes sicker and sicker throughout Acts One and Two. His lover of 4 1/2 years, Louis (Mathew Boudreaux, a junior), finds he can't cope with Prior's illness and moves out. He starts flirting with Joe (Heikki Larsen, a senior), a Republican and a Mormon whose marriage to Harper is falling apart as Joe slowly acknowledges that he has no sexual feelings for her. Harper (Teri L. Clark, a professional actress who came to the college as a guest artist) sinks deeper and deeper into the grip of a Valium addiction that produces highly entertaining hallucinations. At the same time, Joe is being recruited by the Reagan Administration for a job in the Justice Department -- a job that would help safeguard the interests of his mentor, Roy Cohn (Bryan Thomas, a senior) -- a "saint of the right" who, incidentally, has sex with men and is also infected with AIDS. Prior, meanwhile, is being visited by voices and ghostly heralds announcing the arrival of an angel who will offer him unspecified duties as a "prophet," "seer," and "revelator."

Among other awards, Millennium Approaches won the Pulitzer Prize for drama in 1993, during a successful Broadway run that spawned a national tour. Two other college productions were scheduled to open this fall. One of them, directed by a graduate student at Catholic University, was moved off the campus after officials said that the Roman Catholic Church could not condone the play's homosexual content. Here, the controversy fanned by The Commentary seemed to have little effect on the majority of students, although it sent ticket sales through the roof.

Wabash signed up to produce Millennium last year at the insistence of James Fisher, a professor of theater who directed the production. "I read and reread the script," he said, "and I found it to be a play overflowing with humor and characters and ideas. Colleagues said, 'You're crazy.' I said it would be worth failing with."

The show proved more than difficult. For starters, it was big, and Mr. Fisher was determined to do all of it, eliminating only minor instances of nudity that he was uncomfortable asking students to undertake. Organizing rehearsals and a thousand other details preoccupied Mr. Fisher and his stage manager, T.J. Ronningen, a sophomore chemistry major. Mr. Fisher was also concerned about his own limitations. "I was worried up front about being a straight man and understanding gay characters. But that kind of thing happens a lot when you direct." He asked for help from gay members of the cast, but the consensus among cast members ended up being that the gay characters weren't all that different from anyone else, that their moral struggles with loyalty, responsibility, forgiveness, and love were identical to those that straight people face. "It's just a play about a bunch of people's lives," said Joshua Cohen, a sophomore who gives an animated performance as the ghost of one of Prior's ancestors.

Mr. Larsen, who plays Joe, had one of the production's most difficult roles, both on stage and off. "When I read through the play, I thought, This guy seems interesting. Throughout the whole play he's just getting ripped apart. He tries to please everybody but he doesn't please himself." The role, he said, was a serious challenge to him as an actor. "I'm not gay, but that's icing on the cake for me in this role -- I have to kiss a guy on the lips." Mr. Larsen heard his fill of kissing jokes around campus during rehearsals, but he remained unfazed. In a quote widely repeated on the campus, he told The Indianapolis Star: "I'm cool with it."

Marcus Doshi, a senior who designed the show's lighting, said Millennium "forced us to push forward in so many different directions, to do things people said we couldn't pull off because it's so big." In his case, that meant ending up "one cue away from maxing out the light board" -- even after pulling every trick he could think of to increase the lighting system's capacity.

Other students agreed that the play had pushed them toward new discoveries about their own abilities and about American culture in the second half of the 20th century. Mr. Thomas, who gave a splendid performance as Roy Cohn, said he had prepared by reading a biography of Cohn, as well as his autobiography, and by studying the Army-McCarthy hearings. Mr. Fanning and Mr. Boudreaux both read up on AIDS and spent time wondering how they would react if they found out they were H.I.V.-positive. "Knock on wood, every night it's a workout," said Mr. Fanning. "I started at the beginning and went through the whole process of getting lesions put on. I thought about what, if it was me, I'd be going through." Kennith Patterson, a senior who played the gay nurse Belize, said even the on-campus controversy was ultimately good: "This is absolutely what education is about."

If Mr. Fanning's first scenes were surprises, his last was a knockout. Pestered throughout Act Three by the heralds, Prior finally heard the loud beating of wings even as Louis and Joe met and kissed. The stage darkened and music swelled -- "Very Steven Spielberg," Prior observed -- and then screaming, pleading terror overtook him again. The back wall of his bedroom vanished and the magnificent angel herself was revealed, surrounded by fog, fearsomely backlit in red, then white, then blue. "Greetings, prophet," she said. "The great work begins. The messenger has arrived." Indeed it had: Moments later the audience was on its feet, applauding.

Copyright © 1996 by The Chronicle of Higher Education. Published October 18, 1996.