Staging a Pulitzer Prize-winning play that’s never been performed in Montana before was a gambit in more ways than one for the University of Montana School of Theatre and Dance.

Tony Kushner’s “Angels in America Part One: Millennium Approaches” runs about three hours in length, a daunting proposition for casual theater-goers.

Even more so for the cast: The play is structured as a series of intimate scenes between three or four actors at most. Typically only two student thespians occupy the spacious, dimly lit stage at the Montana Theatre, unfurling reams of dialogue.

And a word-heavy play it is – filled with philosophical digressions on love, sex and faith that create an overwhelming panorama of the AIDS crisis’s devastating effects on the gay community, and general anxiety in pre-millennium New York City, circa 1985.

It is, however, only part one, and director John DeBoer hopes the school can stage the second half next academic year.

The plot orbits two couples in crisis, but most every major character has his or her ideas of the world broken or severely tested.

Prior Walter (Trevor Pressler), so easygoing he reveals his lesions with bad jokes, has been diagnosed with AIDS, the effects of which will eventually threaten his sanity.

The illness triggers a more immediate response in his impulsive lover, Louis Ironson, who quickly abandons him and struggles with that decision throughout. Wonderfully played by Sam Williamson, Louis’ honesty about his failings turn him into one of the most sympathetic characters – his open questions about judgment and his own shallowness counter whatever moral judgments the audience may be developing.

For the other couple, any behavior that honest isn’t yet possible.

It’s not much of a spoiler to reveal that Joe Pitt, an uptight Mormon attorney, is closeted, and neither he nor his pill-popping spouse Harper (Katie Norcross) are prepared to deal with that information.

As played by Colton Swibold, Pitt’s naivete and lack of self-awareness seem genuine, which makes it all the more crushing when his faith collides with his identity.

If a crisis like that weren’t enough, Joe also is goaded with a career-making offer from his shady mentor, Roy Cohn.

The corrupt, powerful and heavily accented attorney tempts Joe with an offer to fast-track career and at cost. HIV-positive, closeted and friendless, Cohn slowly loses control of his health and his protege, and finds the beliefs he lived by under threat, even if he didn’t believe in much.

Early in the play, Cohn (Reggie Herbert) describes the universe as “a sandstorm in outer space with winds of mega-hurricane velocity, but instead of grains of sand it’s shards and splinters of glass.”

Such utterances seem perfectly at home on the minimal, well-designed set – a place of wireframe furniture and skyscrapers that evokes ’80s design and the characters’ isolation.

Rounding out the cast are Todd Hunter as Belize, a former drag queen and lover of Prior’s. Hunter, a nontraditional student and native New Yorker, brings gravitas to a role that could drift into cliche. Hunter has one of the most affecting scenes, a coffeeshop conversation with Louis that veers from racism to politics, oppression and stereotypes, but winds up on the topic of whether or not love is ambivalent.

Their patter is overstuffed with serious topics but has equal amounts of Kushner’s humor, which is often overshadowed by the weighty themes. It’s a serious play, but it still ends with a cliffhanger. And a joke about ending with a cliffhanger.

Here’s hoping we find out how it ends next year.

Entertainer editor Cory Walsh can be reached at 523-5261 or at cory.walsh@lee.net.

Entertainer editor Cory Walsh can be reached at 523-5261 or at cory.walsh@lee.net.

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