To continue in the theme of miniseries, let’s look at Mike Nichol’s 2003 adaptation of Tony Kushner’s play Angels in America.
Set in 1985, Angels in America portrays the AIDS epidemic and Reagan-era America with an infusion of magical realism. Its nearly six-hour running time focuses on three interconnected plotlines. Prior Walter (Justin Kirk), a gay man, learns that he has AIDS. His neurotic partner, Louis (Ben Shenkman), can’t cope with Prior’s illness, driving a wedge in their relationship. Louis, an outspoken liberal who loathes Reagan, finds himself unexpectedly drawn to Joe (Patrick Wilson), a closeted Reagan-voting Mormon lawyer who uses his devotion to his mentally ill wife (Mary-Louise Parker) as an excuse to repress his sexuality. Joe, meanwhile, finds his ideals and ethics challenged when he’s mentored by figure Roy Cohn (Al Pacino). Largely associated with his involvement in the McCarthy hearings and the Rosenberg trial, the real-life Roy Cohn was also diagnosed with AIDS in the 1980s and was suspected of being a closeted gay man. Here, he gives Joe an unsavory look into the political world while hiding his worsening health.
Meanwhile, Prior starts receiving visitations from an angel (Emma Thompson) who claims that he’s a prophet.
Meryl Streep also costars in multiple roles, most notably as Joe’s mother and the ghost of Ethel Rosenberg (several actors play two or three roles).
With all of these plot threads, Angels in America could feel bloated. But it has strong pacing and makes good use of its running time, which is longer than it feels. The cast is perfect, and while the miniseries definitely banked on its star power (did I mention Meryl Streep?), it never feels like it’s just a vehicle for big names. It’s hard to believe that this is one of Patrick Wilson’s first acting credits.
Though there are similarities between film and stage as mediums, I think there are always challenges in adapting a play for the screen. The emphasis on dialogue and monologue that’s important for stage can be difficult to translate to screen in a realistic way. Here, it works well and fits the characters, who express themselves easily through dialogue. The actors succeed in making it feel natural.
You might need a couple days (or one long block of time for binge watching) to get through Angels in America, but it’s a great miniseries to watch at least once.