CAMBRIDGE — Among other things, Tony Kushner’s “Angels in America” is an act of faith.
Faith in the power of theater to wrestle with the largest, most urgent subjects: existence, sexuality, mortality, AIDS, politics, history, love, betrayal, the legal system, the riddle of creation, the human capacity for evil and for its opposite.
And “Angels” reflects, too, a young playwright’s faith in himself — Kushner’s faith that he could construct an epic that would be very much of its moment but also built to last; that he could write a play of ideas that was bursting with indelible characters; that he could approach his themes from a dizzying array of angles, creating a portrait of lives that don’t so much intersect as collide.
Is “Angels” self-indulgent, overstuffed, and given to grandiose rhetoric at times? Yes. But it’s remarkable how compelling Kushner’s two-part drama remains three decades after it took the theater world by storm, and how relatively little fat there is in the co-production by Central Square Theater and the New York-based theater company Bedlam.
Eric Tucker, Bedlam’s artistic director, is at the helm for “Angels in America: Part 2: Perestroika,” as he was last spring for “Angels in America: Part 1: Millennium Approaches.” Tucker handles this complex material with utter confidence, keeping the stage in a state of constant churn (the bare bones set is by Deb Sivigny) while eliciting superlative performances from his cast of eight. Most of them are reprising roles they played in Part 1, and, as in Part 1, they perform one scene while roller-skating around the stage.
Eddie Shields delivers another all-out performance as Prior Walter, a 30-year-old gay man stricken with AIDS in New York City in the mid-1980s, more than halfway through the Reagan administration. Between his portrayals of Prior Walter in both parts of “Angels in America” and his work in SpeakEasy Stage Company’s summer production of another epic about gay life, Matthew López’s “The Inheritance,” Shields is having a sensational year.
In “Angels in America,’’ he makes us feel every bit of Prior Walter’s suffering, desperation, and isolation after he is abandoned by his lover, Louis Ironson (Zach Fike Hodges). Louis promptly begins an affair with a married, conservative, Mormon attorney named Joe Pitt (Alexander Platt). Meanwhile, Joe’s wife, Harper (the excellent Kari Buckley), is spiraling into psychological chaos, complete with hallucinations.
Though the left-leaning Louis doesn’t know it at first, Joe is a protégé of the notorious red-baiter, lawyer, power-broker and fixer Roy Cohn (whom Donald Trump has often proclaimed his favorite attorney). In Part 1, Tucker played Cohn; for Part 2, Barlow Adamson steps into the role. Adamson proceeds to deliver the most ferocious performance I’ve seen by this longtime stalwart of Boston stages.
Cohn is a figure of free-floating malice who believes the rules don’t apply to him. (Sound familiar?). He is in a hospital, dying of AIDS, still denying his homosexuality, but while his body is decaying, Adamson makes chillingly clear that Cohn’s ugliness of spirit is very much intact. When Joe pours his heart out to Cohn about his sexuality, Adamson wears an expression that is somewhere between loathing and self-loathing.
Cohn’s nurse is Belize, a former drag queen, played by Maurice Emmanuel Parent, who used to be Prior Walter’s lover and remains his steadfast friend. In many respects, Belize is the conscience of “Angels in America,’’ the one who maintains the firmest grip on his humanity. The precision and elegance of Parent’s performance is something to behold; this was not the first time I’ve found myself shaking my head admiringly at this actor’s versatility.
Helen Hy-Yuen Swanson brings a majestic and genuinely terrifying force to her portrayal of The Angel. Debra Wise excels in several roles: the world’s oldest living Bolshevik, who gives the play’s opening speech; hovering near Cohn’s deathbed, the ghost of Ethel Rosenberg, whose execution on espionage charges he pushed for; and Hannah Pitt, Joe’s mother, whose life is transformed by her visit to New York.
“Angels in America” asks for a substantial commitment by its audience. The runtime for Part 2 at Central Square Theater is four hours, including two intermissions. There’s one more performance of Part 1 — which runs 3½ hours, including two intermissions — scheduled for Saturday. It’s time very well spent.
ANGELS IN AMERICA: PART 2: PERESTROIKA
Play by Tony Kushner. Directed by Eric Tucker. Co-production by Central Square Theater and Bedlam. At Central Square Theater, Cambridge. Through Oct. 8. Tickets $25-$89. 617-576-9278, ext. 1; or centralsquaretheater.org