Christopher Johnson, foreground, gave a Mac Award-winning performance, showing profound tenderness to match the rage in his portrayal of Prior in The Rogue’s “Angels in America.”

Tim Fuller

There was silence at the end of The Rogue Theatre’s production of “Angels in America: Millennium Approaches.”

It was Saturday’s opening night. The audience had just sat through a 3-hour play about life, death, the AIDS crisis of the 1980s, greed, insanity, great abandonment, deep love, angels and devils.

But the silence wasn’t because the audience was exhausted. Or displeased.

It is the only possible reaction to a production that makes vivid the horror, heartbreak and hope of Tony Kushner’s epic masterpiece. That silence gave way to grateful applause.

This play is perhaps one of the most difficult the 11-year-old Rogue has ever taken on. It sprawls, it wails, it attacks the audience with its stories and its intensity.

Director Matt Bowdren infuses the production with the tenderness and anger the play requires. He makes the sprawling intimate. He reminds us that we must not be complacent.

What Bowdren has done is no small feat: Eight actors portray about 20 characters. There’s an angel with beating wings. Ghosts wander in and out. Scenes jump from a hospital to a bar to an upscale apartment to a back alley where men meet for sex. Bowdren, who uses a simple set and quick scene changes, finds the humor and the grace in this dark, often disturbing play.

The piece is also a challenge for actors. Doubling and tripling up on characters mean they must portray different sexes, different ages, different eras, different accents. This ensemble served the play exceedingly well.

At the center of this story about life in mid-1980s America, when greed was good, political corruption was understood, and thousands died because the Reagan administration refused to pay attention to AIDS, are two couples: Prior and his lover, Louis, and Harper and her husband, Joe.

Prior, from an old Mayflower family, has AIDS; Louis, a clerk in a law firm, is healthy and scared. Within weeks of learning of Prior’s illness, he abandons him.

Harper and Joe are Mormons trying to make sense of their lives. She pops lots of valium and escapes into hallucinations; he struggles to come to terms with a wife who is slipping away, and his attraction to men.

Kushner parallels the couples’ lives and shows us how, ultimately, it all converges into a world that is dark and heartless, as well as one that is pure and hopeful.

Christopher Johnson is spellbinding in the role of Prior, who rages against Louis and his abandonment, the ghosts who visit him, the angel who crashes through his ceiling and the disease that is killing him.

But Johnson’s Prior does not live on rage alone. He is deeply nuanced as he struggles to understand what is happening to him and the world around him. He gives him a profound tenderness to match the rage.

It would be easy to dismiss Louis — abandoning his lover of nearly five years because he can’t handle the ugliness of dying is not an admirable trait. But Brian Hendricks won’t let us do that: he helps us understand the fear that governs Louis’ actions and the guilt that won’t let go of him. Hendricks, a University of Arizona graduate now living in New York, is so organic as Louis that we never doubt him and often ache for him.

Holly Griffith weaves in and out of insanity in her role as Harper. We get her desperation, and understand her need to let her mind drift in order to escape. Ryan Parker Knox’s conflicted Joe has the potential to make us hate him — he’s a button-down lawyer who loves Roy Cohn and abandons his mentally ill wife to meet men on the streets. But, he, too, is terribly confused. Knox made that confusion, and his humanity, clear.

Roy Cohn, a lawyer who worked with Joseph McCarthy in the early ‘50s, hated Communists, loved money, was gay but in the closet, and had no use for ethics, is the devil in this play. We see his manipulation and desperation as he tries to convince young Joe to take a job in the Justice Department so he can get ethic charges against Cohn dismissed. Joseph McGrath shines as the seething, cajoling, creepy Cohn, a symbol for all that was wrong about the ‘80s.

A Roy Cohn type needs an antidote, and the gay nurse Belize, open and gentle and fearless, provides it. Sterling Boyns embraces this character and makes clear why this one-time queen is the moral center of the play.

It might be easy to see “Angels” as past its time — the Reagan era, Roy Cohn and other accoutrements of the ‘80s don’t necessarily speak to anyone born after 1985.

But that would be a mistake. The play has a universal sweep and a timelessness. It reminds us of the costs of greed, ignorance and living an inauthentic life, and underscores the necessity for love and generosity and acceptance.

This Rogue production drives that home with a terrible beauty.

Contact reporter Kathleen Allen at kallen@tucson.com or 573-4128. On Twitter: @kallenStar