'Angels in America' earns its wings the hard way

The celebrated play about gay issues proved difficult to adapt for a six-hour TV series.

Toward the end of HBO's most ambitious project to date, the 6-1/2 hour "Angels in America," the Mormon mother of one of the show's gay characters, says "an angel is a belief, with wings and arms that can carry you."

This simple statement, spoken by actress Maryl Streep, is meant to reassure the terrified young man, who's been diagnosed with AIDS, that the human-sized angels he has been seeing and conversing with at various times are not a sign that he is sinking into dementia, but rather a hint that he may be working out a path of redemption. Moments later, the angel, played by Emma Thompson in a magnificent pair of feathery wings, crashes through the hospital wall, howling and thrashing at the air.

It is a powerful moment as a prelude to a fiery staircase dropping from the sky. The young man climbs the stairs to heaven - once again, literally - in order to confront the angels.

"There are some very surreal parts of this," says Streep. "There's a whole other layer of, well, I don't want to say theatricality, but it's almost like opera, it's just on a bigger scale [than normal life]."

The TV series is based on the phantasmagorical meditation on gay life in 1980s America that became a two-part Pulitzer Prize and Tony award-winning play in the 1990s.

"Angels in America" was hailed during its theatrical debut for its courage in addressing an issue that still divides the country today. And it is airing at a time when Americans are grappling anew with questions of rights for homosexuals.

Whether the wildly theatrical stuff will send viewers diving for their remotes - despite the high-powered cast, which also includes Al Pacino - remains to be seen. The total running time is formidable, even presented in smaller chunks.

The fantasy-filled series has been rewarded with rave reviews from critics, but it was not an easy process bringing "Angels" to the small screen.

Playwright Tony Kushner says Hollywood has been sniffing around the project for more than a decade. But it took the star power of actors such as Streep and Pacino, the vision of Broadway and Hollywood director Mike Nichols, combined with the humility of the playwright himself, to wrestle the play's literary and visual metaphors into shape for the up-close naturalism of the small screen.

"I'd never been on a film set until the first day of 'Angels in America,' " says Mr. Kushner, who also wrote the screenplay. "I know absolutely nothing about making films."

The process was an education, but creating a movie for the small screen was not as difficult as it might have been for the cinema. "Television feels more like theater." he says. "The fact that it's on television preserves the kind of intimacy [of the stage]. I'd be much more frightened if it were in IMAX."

The television series cuts nearly 90 minutes from the theatrical version. At the same time, Kushner added new material and rewrote existing scenes, in some cases clarifying what he considered long-standing issues in the text. But given the recent flap over the Reagan miniseries (which just aired on Showtime last weekend) and current headlines about gay marriage and homosexual priests, it's the bluntness of the film's politics that is likely to strike viewers. The play accuses 1980s Washington of stonewalling, refusing to act to prevent what Kushner calls a global pandemic.

Despite this, says Kushner, "Angels" is current because it transcended its time even when it was written.

"It was a play about the past, because it was written in '88, '89, and '90 and it's set in '85 and '86," he says, pointing out the rush to get the first early AIDS drug AZT had already passed by the end of that decade.

"The play and the film address questions of apocalypse in such a way as to make certain features of its emotional landscape resonate now. I think," he says, "the political problems and the political crises, the definition of the sort of battle being fought right now for the definition of America's political personality, is a battle that is current."

The play was lauded for its universal themes of love, loss, and the possibility of redemption in the face of hypocrisy and malice. Al Pacino says he has vivid memories of the original theatrical production.

"I saw the play on Broadway.... I was just overwhelmed by it," says the actor, who portrays Roy Cohn, an attorney who campaigned to have Ethel Rosenberg executed for treason in the '50s.

"For a long time, I tried to figure out many things about its power and its mystery and its familiarity," Pacino says. "It's hard to think of anything else that is about such central, crucial issues of our times that is also at the same time so immensely entertaining."

The play's themes are still relevant, says Kushner because "this is a film about human relationships. Those haven't changed all that much since the late '80s."

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