Once in a great while a theatre company produces a show which it views as it apogee. For Utah‘s Salt Lake Acting Company, Tony Kushner’s Angels in America with its liberal use of Mormonism and Mormon characters, has become exactly that.
“There was so much paranoia surrounding the event in the beginning,” observe SAC executive director Allen Nevins, adding that the agency which books Broadway shows locally didn’t dare schedule the touring production of the two-part Angels in the “city of saints.” (Ironically, the play was partly workshopped at the Sundance Playwrights Lab in the Utah mountains.) “I figured,” says Nevins thoughtfully, “if we’re going to die, we’ll go out with a bang.”
So the season, which includes both parts of Angels, was announced. The theatre whose mainstage accommodates an audience of about 120, received its two largest corporate grants ever as a guarantee that the show would run even without strong box office. Both parts were slated for eight instead of the regular four weeks. Millennium Approaches, which ran Nov. 29-Jan. 21, did so well that additional performances were added. (Perestroika opens this month.)
What, then, explains the appeal of Angels in America to the Utah audience in this mountain home of Mormonism? While Mormon iconography—angels, seerstones, buried scripture and sacred underwear—are abundant in the play’s text, what is most significant to local audiences is that three major characters in Angels—Joe, Harper and Hannah Pitt—are Mormons. At a recent independent Mormon symposium in Salt Lake City, University of Utah professor Colleen McDannell argued that Kushner, a gay activist, chose Mormonism as the religion of the troubled Pitts because no other religious tradition could have conjured the unique dilemmas required by the play.
The Mormon Church, formally known as the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, displays all of the characteristics of an ethnic religion, like orthodox Judaism, and yet its members, according to McDannell, are mainstream enough to “pass” in the hegemony of white, mostly male American power structures. Joe’s sexuality, therefore, is not his only secret. His peculiar cultural background and religion are perfect, ironic parallels: While he may be able to “pass” as straight and as a WASP, he is privately held hostage by both his homosexuality and his culture.
Just how peculiar is Joe’s culture? Peculiar (and powerful) enough to fuse personal identity with that of family and church in a rigorous, codified lifestyle that includes sacred (and secret) temple rituals for adults. Peculiar enough to claim that it is the one and only true church of Christ on the earth. For Joe, to leave the orthodox faith is to lose what soul he has, to become a nonentity.
Then there is the fact that the Mormon Church is one of the most homophobic institutions in America. In Mormon theology, only believers who are married can enter the highest heaven or “Celestial Kingdom.” But anti-gay sentiments do not stop at the pulpit. In Hawaii, where Mormonism has long had a strong presence, local Mormon leaders have urged its members to oppose the pending state legislation to legalize same-sex marriage. And in Utah, where the legislature has never, with perhaps only one exception, gone against corporate Church directives, a law was recently passed that would discredit same-sex marriage performed outside the state.
The civic resonance of “outing” Mormons into contemporary American society is what makes Kushner’s “gay fantasia on national themes” so unique to Utah and its population. The fascination for Mormon and non-Mormon alike lies, to a large extent, in the fact that it exposes not only the ubiquity of gay life, but also that Mormons share frailty and difference with the rest of humankind. Some Mormons are addicted to Valium, like Harper; some are gay, like Joe. And some, like Hannah, Joe’s mother, gloriously, are courageous enough to leave their homes to meet beleaguered sons, and to midwife the approaching millennium with all its requisite dread and promise.
For some of the cast in the Salt Lake production, the play strikes quite close to home. Todd Skurr, who plays Joe Pitt, was raised Mormon; he went on a two-year Church mission and married before he came to terms with his gay orientation. “When I read the script two years ago,” says Skurr, who admits that the part is his most challenging to date. “I immediately related to Joe’s inner world. Joe hardly ever expresses what’s going on inside. But I understood. There’s a core, a raw nerve that Kushner nailed right on: that what you do is more important than how you feel.”
At Salt Lake Acting Company, Angels, directed by Nevins and co-executive director Nancy Borgenicht, resonates with local meaning. Bathed in Wilton Koernig’s meditative lighting, the show opens on a collection of granite—like modules that look as if they had been quarried from the famous Salt Lake Mormon temple. Floor-to-ceiling drapes are used to project shadows and silhouettes, blurring the lines between reality and the apocalyptic fever dreams of Prior Walter (Mark Larson). Harper (Annie Kleczkoiski) sports a feistiness, an edge (as well as, it seems, a history) that most would view as uncharacteristic in a Mormon wife. Her addiction to Valium is perhaps the most believable predicament in the play for residents of Utah, where the antidepressant Prozac is the state’s most-prescribed drug. Louis’s (Jason Novak) intellectual rhetoric, likeable as well as irritating, is a much-admired impulse in a community that has the nation’s highest number, per capita, of college graduates.
Kushner’s unwitting gift to Utah and Mormon viewers of Angels in America is to place the Mormon character into the real world of the nation’s sexual politics. For the first time, orthodox Mormons, paradoxically cloistered yet aggressively proselytizing, can see themselves portrayed as part of the conversation that the rest of the world routinely participates in.
David Pace is co-editor of Critics Quarterly. Before moving to New York City he covered theatre in Utah for 10 years.