CAMBRIDGE — When Central Square Theater and the New York-based Bedlam theater company collaborate, good things tend to happen.
Or great things, as in their riveting coproduction of “Angels in America,” Tony Kushner’s modern classic.
Under the direction of Bedlam’s Eric Tucker, “Angels in America: Millennium Approaches” (part one of Kushner’s two-part play) is a triumph of staging and performance.
Set in New York City in the mid-1980s, at the height of the AIDS crisis — and, not incidentally, midway through the Reagan presidency — “Angels” throws together disparate characters in what amounts to an examination of power and powerlessness.
But Kushner’s X-ray of the American psyche also encompasses matters of sexuality, faith (and faithlessness), family, politics, hypocrisy, ethics, history, medicine, and ancestral ghosts. And let’s not forget the law, with an emphasis on how its precepts can be twisted toward partisan ends — something that resonates in our post-Dobbs moment.
Perhaps to underscore how many lives were lived in the shadows as AIDS wrought its destruction, Tucker has shrouded a number of scenes in semi-darkness, the only illumination provided by cast members who wield hand-held stage lights as they stand near, crouch near, or encircle the characters who are speaking.
For a play that reaches a fever-dream intensity and is steeped in a sense that things are hurtling out of control, Tucker has sped up “Angels” to maximum velocity by having cast members rapidly crisscross the stage on swivel chairs with wheels. (And in one scene, on roller skates.)
That meant, in a bravura early sequence, when uber-sleazeball attorney Roy Cohn, played by Tucker, carried on several telephone conversations at once, he was literally wheeling and dealing.
Characters also spend a lot of time sitting in swivel chairs in the current, Jessica Chastain-starring Broadway revival of “A Doll’s House,” but Tucker makes fuller atmospheric use of the device. Several characters in “Angels in America” feel trapped — in their bodies, in a country that reviles them, in a state of dread about a seemingly unstoppable disease — and the constant, hectic movement feels like an attempt at escape.
In Bedlam’s trademark style, the production at Central Square Theater is pared to its essence. But nothing is held back in the performances by Eddie Shields, just extraordinary as Prior Walter, whose desperation to live is no match for the AIDS virus steadily destroying him, but who appears to be willing himself toward a state of grace; Zach Fike Hodges as Louis, Prior Walter’s hyper-intellectual boyfriend, who fears he doesn’t have the fortitude to stand by his lover to the end; Nael Nacer as Joe Pitt, a married man of conservative beliefs and a protégé of Cohn vying to be part of the Reagan Revolution while simultaneously trying and refusing to come to terms with his homosexuality; and Kari Buckley as Harper, Joe’s Valium-addicted wife, who is prone to hallucinations yet sees truths Joe does not.
The endlessly versatile Maurice Emmanuel Parent excels as Belize, a registered nurse and former drag queen (and also as Harper’s imaginary friend). Debra Wise is, as usual, an asset, playing the ghost of Ethel Rosenberg, whose execution Cohn claims to have engineered, and Hannah, Joe’s no-nonsense mother, who journeys from Salt Lake City to New York and is promptly thrust into a state of confusion.
There she meets a homeless woman in the South Bronx (played by Helen Hy-Yuen Swanson, who also plays the angel), who tells Hannah: “In the new millennium I think we will all be insane.’’
The role of Roy Cohn was double-cast. Tucker played him from April 20 through Saturday night, and made that ultimate string-puller repellent but fascinating. Steven Barkhimer took over the role from Tucker on Sunday, and he will portray Cohn for the rest of the production’s run.
Though it’s hard to believe, “Angels in America” is 30 years old this year, having premiered on Broadway in 1993 and been revived in 2018. In 2003, HBO aired a Mike Nichols-directed TV adaptation starring Al Pacino, Meryl Streep, Emma Thompson, Jeffrey Wright, and Mary-Louise Parker.
But Kushner’s play still feels contemporary, still speaks to our time with poetic lucidity — and with political prescience, as when Cohn gloats over the stealthy, appointment-by-appointment tactics that can enlarge the influence of the right.
After Saturday night’s performance, Central Square Theater artistic director Lee Mikeska Gardner announced that Part Two of Kushner’s opus, titled “Perestroika,’’ will be presented at the theater later this year. That’s welcome news. In the meantime, if you’ve got a must-see list, I’d urge you to put “Angels in America: Millennium Approaches” on it.
ANGELS IN AMERICA: MILLENNIUM APPROACHES
Play by Tony Kushner. Directed by Eric Tucker. Coproduction by Bedlam and Central Square Theater. At Central Square Theater, Cambridge. Through May 28. Tickets start at $25. 617-576-9278, www.CentralSquareTheater.org