WILKES-BARRE — As he talks about an overladen lifeboat from which passengers are “pitched overboard into the freezing, turbulent waters” until only a few are left, it’s easy to see Prior Walter feels similarly vulnerable.
One of the central characters of Tony Kushner’s play “Angels in America,” which is set in 1985 New York City, Prior has been diagnosed with AIDS. His chest and arms are covered with Kaposi’s Sarcoma lesions. He’s getting weaker and his lover, Louis Ironson, can’t handle the situation. So Louis leaves — and despises himself.
That’s just one of many complicated situations audiences will encounter at the show, which continues at Little Theatre of Wilkes-Barre June 10-12.
But if you attend, director Dave Reynolds said, you’ll do more than simply watch.
“Kushner demands engagement,” Reynolds wrote in his program notes. “He writes characters that one immediately connects with, and then sends them on frightful and evocative journeys. You, the audience, go along with them. As the Rabbi says in the opening monologue, ‘In you, that journey is.’ “
Fellow travelers on the journey include Joe Pitt, a man who tends to kiss his wife on the forehead or cheek. While he’s been praying to overcome his attraction to men, his desperately unhappy wife, Harper, tries to make it through a day without Valium.
Then there’s Roy Cohn, a historical figure involved with Ethel and Julius Rosenberg’s 1953 espionage trial. He appears in the play as a fast-talking, cigar-smoking, Rolaids-popping manipulator.
While publicly spouting anti-gay rhetoric, Roy admits to his doctor he has sex with men. What he doesn’t want to admit is that he, too, has AIDS.
“This play touches on so many themes: love, politics, religion, disease, betrayal,” Reynolds wrote. “It is not every day we get to make theatre like this.”
After the June 5 matinee, Little Theatre hosted a talkback session with author and AIDS activist Sean Strub, who noted the date marked the 35th anniversary of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s announcement that five previously healthy, gay men in California were suffering from an unusual lung condition.
More than a million Americans have been diagnosed with AIDS since then and, Strub said, it didn’t have to happen. He blames “government neglect and bias against people who are gay” for the length of time it took to develop drugs to fight the infection.
Strub told the audience about ways he and fellow activists attracted attention to their cause, including a September 1991 incident when a small group, armed with generators and ladders, began to inflate a giant condom around the suburban Washington, D.C., home of Sen. Jesse Helms to protest his opposition to federal funding for AIDS research and treatment.
The activist didn’t succeed in getting arrested that time, but on another occasion shared a cell with Leonard Matlovich, a veteran who challenged the military’s ban on gay and lesbian personnel.
Matlovich’s tombstone bears an inscription, Strub said, declaring he received medals for killing two men in Vietnam and was thrown out “for loving one.”
Reach Mary Therese Biebel at 570-991-6109 or on Twitter @BiebelMT