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Babcock Theatre stages an impressive first half of Angels in America.

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Tony Kushner’s two-part, six-hour Angels in America is an urgent drama that examines AIDS, sexuality, religion and politics, all set in the Reagan-era, greed-centric America of the mid-’80s. That someone would even try to write a play addressing that volatile collection of issues is impressive; that a theater would be mad enough to attempt a staging of it, even more so.

Well, call the University of Utah’s Department of Theatre mad, then, for Part I of Angels in America—subtitled Millennium Approaches—is in the Babcock Theatre now, with Part II (Perestroika) scheduled for next year. The U’s production is not the most outstanding piece of theater I have seen, but it is one of the more ambitious. It is alive with energy and focus, powered by good intentions and earnest effort, with enough talent to keep it afloat even through some of the more difficult passages.

Joe Pitt (Abraham M. Adams) is a Mormon and Utah native who has recently moved to Brooklyn with his wife Harper (Cheryl Nichols) to pursue a law career. Both are deeply unhappy. Harper spends her days in the apartment, slowly going insane, taking far too much Valium, and wishing Joe were home more. Joe, meanwhile, is disgusted with himself because his plan of marrying Harper in order to cure his homosexuality has not worked.

In Joe’s office building there is a young Jewish man named Louis (Benjamin T. Brinton) whose longtime boyfriend Prior (Eric McGraw) is dying of AIDS—and this in 1985, when AIDS was an even lonelier illness than it is now. Louis, too, is disgusted with himself, because he can’t handle watching his partner die. He wants to flee, but he wonders what kind of person that would make him.

All of these characters meet—though in the case of Harper and Prior, it is only in a hallucination. Joe’s boss, the high-powered, profanity-spewing old McCarthy-era figure Roy Cohn (Josh Pierson), figures into things, as do Joe’s mother (Shanna Jones), an angelic disembodied voice (Mindy Dillard), an imaginary travel agent (Jonah B. Taylor) and the ghost of Ethel Rosenberg (Shanna Jones). The play probably doesn’t need as much fanciful imagery as these figures provide, and it’s not always clear what purpose they serve anyway—or at least it isn’t without Part II filling in the blanks. Part I ends with a few resolutions, many loose ends and a lot of tantalizing possibilities for the second half.

That incompleteness is the production’s only significant drawback, actually, and it’s not anyone’s fault but Kushner’s. He’s the one who wrote it in two enormous chunks that no one, not even the maddest theater around, would try to produce as one six-hour piece, even though that would be the best way for audiences to see it. (Salt Lake Acting Company, which actually is the maddest theater around, did the next best thing, staging Millennium Approaches and Perestroika nearly back-to-back in 1995-96.) Part I is an awe-inspiring work, but it’s hardly self-contained.

L.L. West’s direction is admirably straightforward and swift, enabled by Thomas George’s multifaceted set, which lets us see up to six locations at once. With a shift in the lighting, our attention is directed from one scene to the next, with no break in the action.

The all-student cast performs with remarkable insight and maturity. In particular, Adams gives a powerfully understated performance as Joe, a repressed, buttoned-down man who is uncomfortable in his own skin; and as Louis, Brinton helps bring out the parallels between these two men with sensitivity and grace.

The play is not a tragedy, though sad things do occur, nor is it about Mormonism, though three of the characters are Mormon. It is rife with importance and meaning, but that’s not why you watch it. You watch it because it is exciting to see such vivid, imperfect, relatable characters drawn before your eyes.

ANGELS IN AMERICA: MILLENNIUM APPROACHES Babcock Theatre, 300 S. 1400 East (lower level of Pioneer Memorial Theatre). Through March 12. 581-7100

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More by Eric D. Snider

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