Can the toughest thing you have ever done also be your dream come true?
Sacramento actor Ben Ismail thinks so as he takes on the role of a lifetime as Louis in the new Berkeley Rep production of “Angels In America," playwright's Tony Kushner’s epic two-part meditation on American life and death in the post-AIDS, pre-digital world. The play opens April 28 and runs through July 22.
"Angels in America" won both the 1993 Pulitzer Prize for Drama and Tony Award for Best Play. It is considered one of the seminal works of 20th-century literature. The character of Louis forms a crucial piece of the play's mosaic, serving as one half of the gay couple at the center of the sprawling, and often surreal, drama.
“It demands a lot from you,” Ismail said recently about the play while sitting at a small table at the Oak Park Old Soul. “I don’t think I have ever worked harder on a piece. But the rewards are so obvious.”
Though Ismail was born and raised in Memphis, Tenn., where his family still lives, he considers Sacramento his “hometown," he said. He moved to the capital city in 2008 when he was cast in the cult musical “Bare,” produced by Artistic Differences Theater Company at California Stage.
The coming-out story of two young gay Catholic teenagers reminded Ismail of his own life. After high school, Ismail went to Ouachita Baptist College in Arkansas to study for the ministry but left halfway through his first semester. “They laid out the seven steps to save someone’s soul, and I was like ‘Nope, that’s not how it works. I’m out,’” he said.
Not long after, Ismail decided to devote himself to theater. “That’s my ministry,” he said. “It is a spiritual experience. I’m awed by it, especially when I’m working on epic theater like this.”
After “Bare," Ismail continued to book acting jobs in Sacramento, including “Little Shop of Horrors” at Garbeau’s Dinner Theatre and “Cinderella” at Sacramento Theatre Company. He later began working with Big Idea Theatre Company based on Del Paso Boulevard and eventually became its artistic director.
“I had a support system here — you can’t do theater in a vacuum," he said. "When theater can thrive in a community, that really says something about that community because it requires a specific kind of person to enjoy it."
He did several shows at Capital Stage, where his friendship with its former artistic director Stephanie Gularte led to his working at American Stage, the Florida theater she now leads. Ismail was in Florida for most of the “Angels” casting process, which he did by Skype with the play’s director, Berkeley Rep artistic director Tony Taccone.
Ismail previously had understudied at Berkeley Rep, so Taccone had seen him perform in person before and had been impressed. “In one instance, he went on in the Moliere play ('Tartuffe') and was spectacular,” Taccone said. “It immediately raised everybody’s eyebrows.”
Taccone was equally amazed when he saw Ismail’s Skype auditions for the role of Louis. "When you do callbacks, you’re always a little anxious to see if the actor will be as good the second time around," Taccone said. "(But) he’s a really, really fine actor. I think it going to be really exciting for people to see him in this role."
Being cast in the revival of the landmark play is a major step for Ismail, who earned his Actor’s Equity card less than a year and a half ago for his performance as the irreverent Crumpet in the Capital Stage production of David Sedaris’ “Santaland Diaries."
So is working with Taccone, who was one the original co-comissioners of “Angels” at San Francisco’s Eureka Theatre. Taccone also co-directed the play's first production at L.A.'s Mark Taper Forum in 1992. Subsequently, Taccone and playwright Kushner have become quite close. Kushner has been deeply involved in the Berkeley production, meeting with the cast and re-writing some of the text.
Though “Angels In America” was very much of its time, the play’s greatness lies in its universality. Roy Cohn, once Donald Trump’s lawyer and acknowledged mentor, figures prominently in “Angels,” adding to its relevancy. The play’s sense of sadness and dread gives way to rebirth, filling a space Taccone feels many in the country need right now.
“People are living with so much darkness that one of our jobs (as artists) is to actually find ways people can feel hopeful and move forward,” Taccone said.
He added that he thinks some people are experiencing a depressive malaise because of political division and dysfunction in our country, believing nothing can be done.
“This play really takes the hammer to that," he said. "It says change is possible. Building bridges across divides is important. In that sense, the play is a vote for inclusion, diversity and democracy."
Those themes find their dramatic expression through the play's indelible characters. Early in the production, Louis leaves his lover Prior Walter because Walter has contracted AIDS. Ismail described his character as "passionate and empathetic and loving at his core. (But) fear and doubt get in the way" of his values and his life.
"What’s more human than that?” he asked.
'Angels in America: A Gay Fantasia on National Themes'
What: Berkeley Rep presents the Pulitzer winning play, which includes “Part One: Millennium Approaches" and “Part Two: Perestroika.”
Where: Roda Theatre, 2015 Addison St., Berkeley
When: Previews begin April 17. Play opens April 28 and runs through July 22. Showings at 7 p.m. Tuesdays-Sundays; 1 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays. No performances May 1, May 9, May 28-30, June 19, July 2-5.
Information: 510-647-2949, www.berkeleyrep.org