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The millennium's already upon us, but Angels in America continues to approach

The first thing an angel says is nearly always, "Do not be afraid!" True angels (as opposed to the cherubic, Hallmark card variety) are awesome, often sexually charged creatures -- bouncers for the Almighty. Tony Kushner uses this powerful breed of angel in his Pulitzer Prize-winning epic Angels in America: Millennium Approaches, staged by Stray Dog Theatre. Artistic director Gary Bell must be exhausted. Not only has he directed all four plays in the Stray Dog season, but he's also listed as Angels' costume designer and sound and set co-designer. His passion for the play is evident in the austere set, loving details in the costumes and smooth sound transitions, but this plethora of roles seems to have distracted him from his main job: coaching actors in the clear and concise telling of the story.

Not that this is an easy story to tell. Kushner's epic entwines three stories of mid-'80s angst. Louis and Prior are a gay couple dealing with Prior's AIDS diagnosis. Joe and Harper are a Mormon couple struggling with Joe's in-the-closet homosexuality and Harper's Valium addiction. Then there's the historical character Roy Cohn, an infamous lawyer who, while denying his homosexuality, died of AIDS in 1986. Add in that angel, some imaginary friends, a drag queen and a Mormon mom -- well, it's all pretty complex.

And wordy. Kushner's dialogue, which felt prophetic and profound ten years ago, sounds overwrought now -- all this anxiety about the millennium approaching sounds like yesterday's news (because it is), and the discussions of politics, justice and true love are more words than wisdom. What remains intriguing are the characters' relationships -- and this is where Bell needs to have sharpened his storytelling skills. If the political/philosophical diatribes couldn't be shortened (or cut out), they should at least have speedy pacing and more energy. And several indulgently slow emotional scenes need to focus on moving the story forward.

A hard-working cast of eight actors portrays twenty-one characters. William Ledbetter and Bradley Calise anchor the production as Louis and Prior. Ledbetter moves easily between Louis' love for Prior and his revulsion at the symptoms of the illness, creating a sympathetic character who does unsympathetic things -- no small feat. Calise as Prior is alternately charming and bitter -- completely believable as a man facing death and betrayal. William Alverson plays Joe with conviction and palpable despair. The dramatic highlight of Act Two begins with Joe's phone call to his (Mormon) mother, in which he tells her the truth about himself. Alverson's anguished cry of "Mama, I'm a homosexual" reveals real vulnerability, and Laura Kyro's steely response -- "We'll forget this phone call. Go home to your wife" -- propels him into the next scene, where he finally admits his sexual preference to Harper (Kimberly Sansone). Their climactic confrontation takes place simultaneously with Louis and Prior breaking up, and the double-staging is breathtaking.

Sean Walton plays the fantasy character "Mr. Lies" and ex-drag-queen Belize with equal parts sarcasm and sass. Johanna Elkana transforms believably into four distinct characters and uses her silky voice as the erection-inducing Angel. As Roy Cohn, Gary Feder hits only one note -- and it's always loud (a man with that much power wouldn't need to yell so much). Sansone's Harper also seems one-dimensional, and her nervous twitches make it seem as if she were hooked on amphetamines, not Valium.

The controversial play (featuring male nudity and simulated anal sex) is not for the easily offended -- in addition to frank discussions of fellatio, there's criticism of the Reagan administration and heated debates about racism. The dense text and existential issues are a contrast to the usual light "summertime" plays found on St. Louis stages -- and that in itself can be seen as a plus. The ambitious production may not remain engaging for every minute of its three-and-a-half-hour running time (which includes two intermissions with tasty cookies for sale), but where else can you encounter the sacred and the profane so thoughtfully interwoven? If you're not afraid, these Angels might raise your consciousness -- if not some other part.

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