University Theatre to present Tony Kushner’s epic ‘Angels in America’

By Kari Dickinson

This summer and fall, University Theatre will launch its 2024-25 season with the staging of Tony Kushner’s acclaimed two-part play, “Angels in America.” 

“Angels in America” is widely regarded as one of the most important American plays of the last century. The two-part epic, which spans various locations including New York City and Utah, delves into the lives of a diverse group of Americans during the early days of the AIDS epidemic. The play skillfully weaves together political, social, religious, cultural, and historical themes, delivering a potent message of love and hope.

Ann Shanahan

“It is one of the most impactful plays of the last century written in English,” says Ann M. Shanahan, artistic director of University Theatre and a professor in the School of Education’s Department of Theatre and Drama. “I don’t know of a single example of a play that had such a direct impact on lives, saving lives and changing the world — specifically impacting public opinion, policy, and laws for gay rights and the fights to defend them today.” 

A full staging of Kushner’s first part, “Angels in America Part 1: Millennium Approaches,” will open this summer, running July 25 to Aug. 4. Directed by Audrey Lauren Standish, a lecturer in the Department of Theatre and Drama, it includes a cast of 12 UW–Madison students who are rehearsing intensely on a condensed timeline — just four weeks — to produce the play.

“I am thrilled to work with this cast — in fact, I am honored,” says Standish. “They have met every challenge presented to them.” 

Audrey Standish

Standish notes that the actors were asked to arrive at the first rehearsal with their lines memorized and prepared to dive into the text. “Several actors contacted me in early May and set up additional meetings with me before the first rehearsal started,” she says. “They wanted to get a head start on character development and text prep work.” 

“We are really focused on the story, understanding the given circumstances of the script, and looking at the show beat by beat to craft and stage Kushner’s words as he would have wanted,” she says.

One hurdle for these young actors, Standish adds, is understanding the specific political and social context of the play — which takes place between 1985 and 1990, before they were even born. “Many do not have first-hand experience with or even fully appreciate that there was a modern plague prior to COVID-19,” she says. “Getting the cast to understand the gravity of the AIDS epidemic has been a challenge, although they are handling it with such great care.”

Parts 1 and 2 to kick off fall season

Following the summer run, “Millennium Approaches” will be remounted in fall from Sept. 12 to 22, while a staged reading of the second part of Kushner’s play, “Angels in America Part 2: Perestroika,” runs in repertory. This second part will be directed by UW–Madison alumnus Harry Waters Jr., a Twin Cities-based actor and director who created the role of Belize for the play’s workshop with Kushner and premiere at the Eureka Theatre Company in San Francisco in 1991. 


Waters reflects that during the run of “Millennium Approaches” for that original production at the Eureka, Kushner mounted the production and then retreated to the Russian River in California for a couple of weeks to work on the second part of his play. When he returned, the Eureka cast, including Waters, did a table read of “Perestroika” — which clocked in at five and a half hours! 

“That gives you an idea of how massive this piece was,” says Waters — though ultimately Kushner did remove a section of the play, reducing the runtime to a “mere” three hours. 

He adds: “In the mind of Tony Kushner, there’s a way of thinking about ‘Millennium Approaches’ as just the foundations, and then ‘Perestroika’ is the huge imaginings of where we can go and what the possibilities are.”

Waters, who earned his MFA in directing from the Department of Theatre and Drama in 2003, is thrilled to return to his alma mater to direct the second part of Kushner’s play. And even though this part, as a staged reading, will be focused on the text without production elements, he expects his actors to powerfully convey the story.

“They’re not having to memorize the lines, but they’re having to bring the completeness of how they imagine their characters’ lives,” he says. 

“We don’t get special effects, but we get the magic of the power of the actors.”

Tickets are now available for the summer run of “Angels in America Part 1: Millennium Approaches,” July 25 – Aug. 4 in the Gilbert V. Helmsley Theatre. To buy tickets, visit or call 608-265-2787. 

Tickets for the September performances of “Angels in America Part 1: Millennium Approaches” and the staged reading of “Angels in America Part 2: Perestroika,” running in repertory, will become available later this summer. 

Content Advisory: This play contains mature language, racial and ableist slurs, references to explicit sexual situations, and depictions of violence, illness and death.

These productions are made possible by support from the Brittingham Trust and Anonymous Block Grant.

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