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A deep look at 1980s epidemic

Jim Edmondson is the director of “Angels in America: Millennium Approaches,” by Tony Kushner, now playing at Southern Oregon University’s Main Stage Theatre. A magnificent hallucinatory fantasy, the play offers a deeply personal look at the victims of the AIDS epidemic in the 1980s, a time of sexual promiscuity and social oppression. I met with Edmondson in the theater during a technical rehearsal.

JE: The scope of the play is huge. I assigned the cast to study subjects such as: Civil Rights; the House Un-American Activities Committee; Roy Cohen; the history of drag, and leather bars in America; the early medical and political response to the epidemic; Rock Hudson; the plagues of the 13th and 17th century. The Angel brought in charts of the structure of heaven. It’s been interesting to research the clothes of the early ’80s, and how strange they were.

The play is interesting because it is so political, so religious, so compassionate and so despicable. The range of experience is great. It’s so enormous in its scope: that you’d have ghosts and fantasies, and historical figures. Kushner was very daring to put all that into the same world.

It’s an intricate play. There are 26 scenes. This play is very Shakespearean in range, and in depth, and in the kinds of people that he wrote about. Kushner did not make an easy judgment about anybody. It’s very interesting. It’s not easy stuff.

EH: Tell me about the staging.

JE: It’s divinely neutral, the way Elizabethan stages were. Shakespeare was very cinematic. Angus Bowmer said that, if Shakespeare were writing today, he would have been in Hollywood, and he would have developed the lap-dissolve among other film editing techniques. You realize what a perfect stage the Elizabethan Theater was for his plays, he could reveal people in a second.

It’s filled with unusual scenes. Nothing is specific in time and place, but you have furniture from the early ’80s (and once in a while) park benches, bedrooms, bars, hospital rooms, and a small apartment in the Bronx. Lighting and sound probably tell it more than anything. What is a fantasy like? How is it lit? Is it comforting or terrifying? No other playwright has reached into other dimensions as much as Kushner did. He says no black-outs, and he means it. It’s all got to flow, and flow, and flow.

EH: What will the audience take away?

JE: This play is broad and far-reaching, in terms of the political and religious climate, and the plea for compassion and grace.

I believe the play is ultimately hopeful on a personal level. Throughout, there is the idea of taking personal responsibility for your life. It is eventually a hopeful statement about individual people in the face of very strange hardships: Who had compassion and who didn’t? And what an individual call that turned out to be. I hope what they’re getting out of it is: Compassion belongs to all ages if you choose it.

I’m glad to be doing something that is so demanding. I have to remind the students at times, “You’re doing the hard stuff. You’re doing one of the hardest plays ever written in modern English, so be kind to yourself and work harder.” I hope they remember it as the important play it is.

It will be interesting to see what plays come out of our time.

“Angels in America: Millennium Approaches,” plays at 8 p.m. Thursday, Friday, and Saturday, May 23 - 25, and Friday and Saturday May 31 - June 1. At 2 p.m. Saturday and Sunday June 1 and June 2, in the SOU Main Stage Theatre, 491 S. Mountain Ave., Ashland. For tickets and information visit: oca.sou.edu/box-office or call: 541-552-6348.

Evalyn Hansen is a writer and director based in Ashland. To read more interviews with remarkable people, visit her blog: ashlandtheater.net. Connect with her at evalyn_robinson@yahoo.com.

James Edmondson