DENISE GOUGH FINDS GRACE AND FREEDOM IN 'ANGELS IN AMERICA'
Just a few months ago, the Irish actress Denise Gough was a newcomer to New York, someone who still thrilled to what most would see as the daily drudgery of taking the subway. After a revelatory, searing turn as the addict Emma in the play People, Places & Things at St. Ann’s Warehouse last fall, she has now made the move from Brooklyn to Broadway, where she is currently reprising her role as Harper in the revival of Angels in America, for which she earned a Tony nomination yesterday morning. Returning to the city, she is less in awe than she was before, although her latest project has afforded her a deeper appreciation. “It felt like London was maybe to warm it up and now it’s where it’s supposed to be, because everything fits much better here,” she says about Tony Kushner’s two-part epic about life, love, religion, power, and AIDS in Eighties New York. “It’s New York’s play. It’s so specifically New York.”
One of the masterpieces of American theater, Angels in America follows the paths of several gay men—one of whom, the closeted Mormon lawyer Joe Pitt, is Harper’s husband—through a city struggling with an epidemic. Harper, who eventually admits to herself she knew Joe was gay when she married him, takes several Valiums a day, although Gough says that, coming after her full-bodied portrayal as Emma, she doesn’t see Harper as an addict. “Emma was of this world and I had to play the variations of her addiction,” the actress—who earned Olivier Awards for both roles—explains, reflecting on the range in her earlier performance from giddily tipsy to nearly catatonic. “With Harper, I never play her that she’s on drugs. I think Harper takes the drugs because she’s trying to avoid the truth. With Emma, it was a process of taking layers of armor off so that she could connect to her life, but with Harper, it’s about getting her to put the layers of armor on so that she can walk away from this very destructive relationship.”
Gough’s Harper is, indeed, powerfully lucid and insightful, sharp and vivid as the pills bring her to the “threshold of revelation,” where she meets Prior Walter, who is abandoned by his lover Louis when he becomes infected. In the current Broadway production, a transfer from London’s National Theatre, Andrew Garfield plays Prior and Nathan Lane portrays Roy Cohn, the real-life lawyer who died of AIDS and appears on the cover of New York Magazine this week with the headline “The Worst Human Being Who Ever Lived.” He also happened to be our current president’s mentor, by the latter’s own admission. “The great progress we have made is that it’s not such a big deal to see openly gay men on stage and that is fantastic,” Gough says. “The stuff that really stands out for me now is all about Roy Cohn. His protégé is in the White House. The play is just as relevant now for different reasons.”
Angels in America takes place early in the Reagan years and the contemporary similarities in the conflict between liberal New York and a reactionary administration are bracing. When Louis retorts, about the then-president, “Where would he be without us to demonize?” it’s hard not to imagine Trump’s hate-baiting Twitter feed scrolling by. The play confronts, now as it did then, a federal government that is actively hostile to anyone it deems “other.” (It famously took nearly five years—and hundreds of deaths—before Reagan publicly mentioned AIDS, then largely seen as a “gay disease.”) In recounting the history of Mormon migration westward and featuring a conclave of angels who fail to convince Prior to spread the gospel of staying in place, Angels faces off squarely against nativist ideas as well. Louis tells a poignant tale about immigrants in a boat being thrown into the sea as the water level rises, another theme Gough finds strikingly relevant to today. “That’s happening at the moment in this country that says it’s welcoming, but it’s not like that now. It’s very paranoid,” she says. “The current political climate is the thing that is the most worrying and for me what stands out in all the conversations in the play about immigrants and not feeling at home and searching for your place and the melting pot where nothing melts.”
Gough’s own Harper is perhaps the play’s best argument for change. The play’s epilogue finds her on a night flight to San Francisco, in search of that fabled fresh start. What Angels in America ultimately shows us is that pain is as necessary a part of life as love and beauty. The release that Harper so cherishes at the end comes at a high price, but one that is worth paying. “She walks away from something that’s killing her and she has hope,” Gough explains. “Harper and Prior are kind of running parallel through this play and they both, by going to the absolute center of themselves and their pain and looking at it, get freedom, which is why they’re so connected. Freedom is knowing that you’re ravaged, you’re heartbroken, but you’re free. My god, [Kushner’s] writing is so powerful, because isn’t that the case? You may be fucked and devastated, but you’re free. Devastation is what makes people migrate. It makes people build things and that’s incredible.”
Angels in America runs through July 1 at the Neil Simon Theatre, New York.
Styling by Carolina Orrico at Jones Management. Hair by David Cruz at Art Department. Makeup by Jenny Kanavaros at Honey Artists. Photographer’s assistant: Olivier Simille.