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An Epic Look at Reagan-Era Morality : Director Oskar Eustis and writer Tony Kushner are bringing a six-hour, six-act examination of national themes to the Taper Too

May 13, 1990|RICHARD STAYTON

"Dark" is the operative adjective for "Millennium." Both Eustis and Kushner view the 1980s as a dark night of the soul for America. The decade's only ideology seems to have been greed, they argue. Basically, as the play underscores, what we've come to believe is that people really only function out of the desire to get rich or the fear of being poor. In theme, if not style, "Millennium" is similar to another recent American play, Howard Korder's "Search and Destroy," which premiered this year at South Coast Repertory. Both plays are highly critical of the Reagan era.

"We live in a world where it's increasingly true that people adhere to systems of morality or law that dissenters have dropped out of," Kushner believes. "The systems come to stand against their adherents. They're essentially dead. It's the place where genuine morality becomes moralism."

Despite such philosophy, "Millennium" dramatically avoids ideological rhetoric. Themes are realized through specific, personal relationships. A young Mormon attorney struggles to repress his homosexuality but "living a lie" subtly undermines his wife's precarious mental balance. A computer programmer's lover is ill with AIDS, but instead of responding with courage and devotion, he panics and abandons him.

The latter situation has made Kushner anxious. He's politically active in the gay community. He was arrested last December along with fellow members of ACT UP (AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power) while demonstrating at New York's St. Patrick's Cathedral during Mass. He fears his portrait of a gay relationship crumbling under the pressure of AIDS could cause backlash.

"I'm a little scared in terms of what the gay community will think," Kushner confesses. "But there is another side of this that isn't really talked about very much. In my experiences with the people who had AIDS and those who take care of them, the ordeal is emotionally costly. And a lot of times it doesn't work. The community for the most part has come through. But there are those who haven't. And nobody's done it easily."

Eustis relates to this conflict through his own background, having come from an alcoholic family with its own set of co-dependent relationships. He provided Kushner with insights and anecdotes about back-room politics in Washington, that lent authenticity to "Millennium."

Eustis' father was head of the Minnesota Democratic Farmer Labor Party, a colleague of Hubert Humphrey and Walter Mondale. When President Lyndon Johnson appointed him chief counsel to the Small Business Administration, "He finally cracked. At 4 o'clock on the morning of his confirmation hearings, my father found himself sitting on the steps of the Capitol, drunk out of his mind, with a bottle of Scotch in his hands."

Realizing he'd never sober up in time to testify, Eustis' father got in his Oldsmobile and started back to Minnesota. He blacked out and, two weeks later, came to, on a bar stool in Ontario, Canada.

"To the day he died he never knew what happened to the Oldsmobile," Eustis said. His father left politics in order to stay sober. But he didn't stop being political, founding the Minnesota Chemical Dependency Assn. "He died on the day of his 20th anniversary of sobriety."

Such stories about the back-room maneuvers of his politically active father helped bring real politik to Cohn's character.

Cohn never talked about his homosexuality and often appeared in public with a female escort. This denial of sexual identity and its corrupting effects are a key theme in "Millennium."

"I have fairly clear memories of being gay since I was 6," Kushner says. "I knew that I felt slightly different than most of the boys I was growing up with. By the time I was 11 there was no doubt. But I was completely in the closet."

After leaving his hometown of Lake Charles, La., to attend Columbia University, Kushner suffered through "four years of trying to become heterosexual through psychoanalysis." Finally, Kushner "came out," learning several valuable lessons from a gay therapist.

And how does a straight man direct such gay material? Kushner and Eustis discussed this often.

"I have no problems with how I feel about homosexuality," Eustis says. "Sometimes I have to confess to my lack of expertise on certain things. There are occasions when I have to turn to members of the cast and ask, 'What's really going on here? Talk to me. This scene in the park, I'm sorry, I've never been there.' I love that. It produces a commendable modesty and humility on the part of a director, which is very important, because, heaven knows, I direct women, and I'm not a woman."

Eustis' dedication to a rigorous theater of commitment began when he was a teen-ager. He moved to New York at 16 but left NYU to pursue a real education with such seminal avant-garde companies as Mabou Mines and The Performance Group. By age 19, he was working in Germany and Switzerland, and had co-founded the Laboratory Theater of the Schauspielhaus Zurich.

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