Angels in America is a novel written by Tony Kushner.
- Louis Ironson - A "word processor" who works at the federal appeals court in Brooklyn. Louis embodies all the stereotypes of the neurotic Jew: anxious, ambivalent and perpetually guilty. Yet that guilt does not prevent him from leaving his lover Prior when he contracts AIDS. Louis's moral journey, from callous abandonment to genuine repentance and sorrow, is one of the key maturations in the play; his awakening of responsibility parallels the awakening that the play seeks to awaken in its audiences. Louis's idealistic faith in American democracy, while often naive or self-absorbed, is similar to the faith Kushner himself manifests, so much so that some critics call Louis a stand-in for the playwright.
- Prior Walter - The boyfriend Louis abandons after Prior reveals that he has AIDS. Prior becomes a prophet when he is visited by an Angel of God, but he eventually rejects his prophecy and demands a blessing of additional life. The Angel is drawn to Prior because of his illness, which inscribes a kind of ending in his bloodstream, and because of his ancient Anglo-Saxon lineage, representing the notion of being rooted and stable. But he proves wiser than the Angels in rejecting their doctrine of stasis in favor of the painful necessity of movement and migration. Prior is as genuinely decent and moral as Louis is flawed. His AIDS infection renders him weak and victimized, but he manages to transcend that mere victimhood, surviving and becoming the center of a new, utopian community at the play's end.
- Joe Pitt - A Mormon, Republican lawyer at the appeals court, Joe grapples with his latent homosexuality, leaving his wife Harper for Louis and being left in turn by Louis. Louis is at first drawn to Joe's ideology but ultimately turns on him because he is a conservative and an intimate of the hated Roy Cohn. His initial naiveté is challenged by Roy's unethical behavior and his painful love affair. Joe's path in the play (from self-sufficient and strong to helpless and dependent) is in some ways the opposite of Prior's trajectory. The play finally seems to abandon Joe, excluding him from its vision of the good society because of his ideology—an omission that comes off as uncharacteristically narrow and intolerant.
- Harper Pitt - Joe's wife, a Valium-addicted agoraphobe trapped in a failing marriage who hallucinates and invents imaginary characters to escape her troubles. The perpetually fearful Harper obsesses about knife-wielding men and the ozone layer as a subconscious stand-in for her own difficulties. But through an inexplicable dream encounter with Prior, she learns that her husband is gay and begins to take control of her own destiny. Of all the major characters, Harper ends the play the farthest from where she began: as an independent, confident woman newly in love with life and setting off to build her own life in San Francisco.
- Roy Cohn - A famous New York lawyer and powerbroker, Roy Cohn was a real-life figure whom Kushner adapted for his play. Roy is the play's most vicious and disturbing character, a closeted homosexual who disavows other gays and cares only about amassing clout. His lack of ethics led him to illegally intervene in the espionage trial of Ethel Rosenberg, which resulted in her execution. Roy represents the opposite of community, the selfishness and loneliness all too endemic to American life. However, his malevolence goes beyond mere isolation to actual hatred and evil. He is forgiven (though not exonerated) in the play's moral climax, after his death (from AIDS) unwittingly reconnects him to the gay community from which he always distanced himself.
- Belize - A black ex-drag queen and registered nurse, Belize is Prior's best friend and—quite against Belize's will—Roy's caretaker. He is the most ethical and reasonable character in the play, generously looking out for Prior, grappling with Roy and rebutting Louis's blindly self-centered politics. At times Belize feels less like an individual than a symbol of marginalized groups, particularly since most of his history and personal life are hidden from the audience. But despite these omissions he remains complex—full of hatred for Roy, yet possessing sufficient character and morality to forgive him.
- Hannah Pitt - Joe's mother, who moves from Salt Lake City to New York after Joe confesses he is gay in a late-night phone call. Hannah tends sternly to Harper but blossoms after she encounters Prior, becoming his companion and friend. Her chilly demeanor is melted by Prior and by a remarkable sexual encounter with the Angel.
- The Angel of America - An imposing, terrifying, divine presence who descends from Heaven to bestow prophecy on Prior. The Angel seeks a prophet to overturn the migratory impulse of human beings, believing that their constant motion and change have driven God to abandon creation. Her cosmology is disturbingly reactionary, even deadly, and Prior successfully resists it in a visit to Heaven. This reactionary nature is rather surprisingly blended with a dramatic, Whitman-esque speaking style and an overpowering, multigendered sexuality.
- Ethel Rosenberg - A real-life Jewish woman who was executed for treason during the McCarthy era. The Ethel of the play returns as a ghost to take satisfaction in the death of her persecutor, Roy. Ethel hates Roy with a "needlesharp" passion, yet on his deathbed she musters enough compassion to sing to him. Her recitation of the Kaddish with Louis indicates her forgiveness.
- Rabbi Isador Chemelwitz - An elderly rabbi who delivers the eulogy at the funeral of Sarah Ironson, Rabbi Chemelwitz describes the conservative process by which Jewish immigrants resisted assimilation. Louis seeks spiritual guidance from him, and Prior later encounters him in Heaven on his way to confront the Angels.
- Mr. Lies - A travel agent who resembles a jazz musician, Mr. Lies is one of Harper's imaginary creations. She summons him whenever she wants to escape from her present surroundings, though Mr. Lies cautions her that there is a limit to her ability to flee from reality.
- Henry - Roy's doctor, whom Roy threatens with destruction lest he refer to him as a homosexual. Henry recognizes the folly of Roy's self-delusion but ultimately gives in to it, agreeing to set down his official condition as liver cancer.
- Emily - A nurse who attends to Prior in the hospital. Emily is one of several characters who give voice to the same anti-migratory impulse as the Angel, she tells Prior in no uncertain terms to stay put.
- Martin Heller - A Justice Department official and political ally of Roy's. Martin is fundamentally spineless, allowing Roy to manipulate him in order to impress Joe and then taking the abuse that Roy heaps on him along with a blackmail threat.
- Sister Ella Chapter - A real estate agent who handles the sale of Hannah's house in Salt Lake. Like Emily, she urges her friend to settle down and remain at home.
- Prior I and Prior II - Prior's ancestors who are summoned from the dead to help prepare the way for the Angel's arrival. Prior I is a medieval farmer, Prior II a seventeenth- century Londoner who is more sophisticated and cosmopolitan in outlook. Both men died of the plague.
- Aleksii Antedilluvianovich Prelapsarianov - The World's Oldest Living Bolshevik, who delivers the tirade that marks the beginning of Perestroika. Prelapsarianov criticizes the pettiness of modern American life, the pointless quality of life in the absence of a governing theory.
- The Mormon Mother - A dummy from the diorama at the Mormon Visitor's Center who is silenced while her husband and son speak. The Mormon mother comes to life, however, and accompanies Harper while sharing painful truths about life and change.
- Sarah Ironson - Louis's grandmother, Sarah's funeral takes place in the first scene of Millennium. Prior encounters her in Heaven, playing cards with Rabbi Chemelwitz.
Angels in America focuses on the stories of two troubled couples, one gay, one straight: "word processor" Louis Ironson and his lover Prior Walter, and Mormon lawyer Joe Pitt and his wife Harper. After the funeral of Louis's grandmother, Prior tells him that he has contracted AIDS, and Louis panics. He tries to care for Prior but soon realizes he cannot stand the strain and fear. Meanwhile, Joe is offered a job in the Justice Department by Roy Cohn, his right-wing, bigoted mentor and friend. But Harper, who is addicted to Valium and suffers anxiety and hallucinations, does not want to move to Washington.
The two couples' fates quickly become intertwined: Joe stumbles upon Louis crying in the bathroom of the courthouse where he works, and they strike up an unlikely friendship based in part on Louis's suspicion that Joe is gay. Harper and Prior also meet, in a fantastical mutual dream sequence in which Prior, operating on the "threshold of revelation," reveals to Harper that her husband is a closeted homosexual. Harper confronts Joe, who denies it but says he has struggled inwardly with the issue. Roy receives a different kind of surprise: At an appointment with his doctor Henry, he learns that he too has been diagnosed with AIDS. But Roy, who considers gay men weak and ineffectual, thunders that he has nothing in common with them—AIDS is a disease of homosexuals, whereas he has "liver cancer." Henry, disgusted, urges him to use his clout to obtain an experimental AIDS drug.
Prior's illness and Harper's terrors both grow worse. Louis strays from Prior's bedside to seek anonymous sex in Central Park at night. Fortunately, Prior has a more reliable caretaker in Belize, an ex-drag queen and dear friend. Prior confesses to Belize that he has been hearing a wonderful and mysterious voice; Belize is skeptical, but once he leaves we hear the voice speak to Prior, telling him she is a messenger who will soon arrive for him. As the days pass, Louis and Joe grow closer and the sexual tinge in their banter grows more and more obvious. Finally, Joe drunkenly telephones his mother Hannah in Salt Lake City to tell her that he is a homosexual, but Hannah tells him he is being ridiculous. Nonetheless, she makes plans to sell her house and come to New York to put things right. In a tense and climactic scene, Joe tells Harper about his feelings, and she screams at him to leave, while simultaneously Louis tells Prior he is moving out.
The disconsolate Prior is awakened one night by the ghosts of two ancestors who tell him they have come to prepare the way for the unseen messenger. Tormented by such supernatural appearances and by his anguish over Louis, Prior becomes increasingly desperate. Joe, equally distraught in his own way, tells Roy he cannot accept his offer; Roy explodes at him and calls him a "sissy." He then tells Joe about his greatest achievement, illegally intervening in the espionage trial of Ethel Rosenberg in the 1950s and guaranteeing her execution. Joe is shocked by Roy's lack of ethics. When Joe leaves, the ghost of Ethel herself appears, having come to witness Roy's last days on earth. In the climax of Part One, Joe follows Louis to the park, then accompanies him home for sex, while Prior's prophetic visions culminate in the appearance of an imposing and beautiful Angel who crashes through the roof of his apartment and proclaims, "The Great Work begins."
In Part Two, Harper indulges in the fantasy that she is in Antarctica with her imaginary companion Mr. Lies. But Antarctica turns out to be Brooklyn's Prospect Park, and she is picked up by the police. With Joe nowhere to be found, Hannah comes to her rescue, tending to her in the depths of depression. She finally insists that Harper join her at the Mormon Visitor's Center, where she has begun to volunteer. Meanwhile, the increasingly sick Roy checks in to the hospital where Belize works as a nurse. Roy insults him with cutting, racist remarks, but Belize, angry but filled with involuntary respect, gives him valuable advice on his treatment. Their relationship is always bitter but heated and icy by turns. Belize, however, demonstrates his considerable compassion for Prior, who tells him the full story of the Angel's visit. After her dramatic arrival, she gives Prior a prophetic book and explains that she seeks his help to halt the migratory tendency of human beings, which the Angels in Heaven believe tempted God to abandon them. God, she explains, left Heaven forever on the day of the San Francisco earthquake in 1906, and since then his Angels—whose vast powers are fueled by constant sexual activity—have been rudderless and alone. To reverse the trend, the Angel says humans must end their constant motion, their addiction to change. Not surprisingly, Prior is aghast at her words and vows to flee from her at all costs.
Roy learns that his political opponents plan to disbar him for an ethical lapse, but he vows to remain a lawyer until he dies. In a friendly rapprochement, he gives Joe his blessing, until Joe reveals that he has left Harper for a man—he has been living for a blissful month with Louis. Stunned and angry, he demands that Joe end his gay relationship at once. Ethel comes to observe him in his misery. Joe's wife, on the other hand, spends her days at the Mormon Visitor's Center watching a diorama of the Mormon migration featuring a father dummy who looks suspiciously like Joe. When Prior drops in to conduct research on angels, a fantasy sequence ensues in which Louis and Joe appear in the diorama. The formerly silent Mormon mother comes to life and leaves with Harper, giving her painful but valuable advice on loss and change.
Louis and Joe's idyll draws to an end when Louis says he wants to see Prior again. At their meeting, Prior coldly insists that he must present visible proof of his internal bruises. Belize later tells Louis about Joe's relationship with Roy, whose politics and personal history Louis despises. When Louis angrily confronts Joe, their fight turns physical and Joe punches him. He apologizes, horrified, but they never speak again. Roy nears his end as well, reeling from Joe's disclosure and from Ethel's news that he has been disbarred. He dies, but not before tricking Ethel into tenderly singing for him. After his death, Belize summons Louis to recite the Kaddish, the Jewish prayer for the dead, to demonstrate thanks (for his stash of AIDS drugs) and forgiveness. Ethel leads Louis in the prayer, the play's emotional and moral climax.
After Prior suffers an episode at the visitor's center, Hannah takes him to the hospital. There, the Angel descends, and Prior wrestles her. He succeeds, and is granted entry into Heaven to refuse his prophecy. In Heaven, which resembles San Francisco after the great earthquake, Prior tells the Angels that despite all his suffering he wants them to bless him and give him more life. The Angels sympathize but say they cannot halt the plague. He tells them should God return, they should sue Him for abandonment. Back on earth, his fever broken, Prior tells Louis he loves him but that he cannot ever come back. Harper leaves Joe for the last time and sets off on an optimistic voyage to San Francisco to begin her own life.
In 1990, four years later, Louis, Prior, Belize and Hannah appear in a moving epilogue. Prior says that the disease has killed many but that he intends to live on, and that the "Great Work" will continue.
The city of San Francisco symbolizes both the failed society that the Angels try to perpetuate as well as the promise of an ideal, gay-inflected community that the play's ending promises. Heaven resembles San Francisco after the huge earthquake of 1906, the day on which God abandoned his people forever. His departure is as devastating to the Angels as the quake was to the city. But while Heaven remains in a state of permanent rubble and decay, the real San Francisco was almost immediately rebuilt, becoming, as Prior tells Harper, a place of "unspeakable" beauty. The San Francisco metaphor thus contrasts the untenable stasis of the Angels with the ceaseless energy and determination of human beings. The city also represents the longed-for ideal society the characters attempt to build in the epilogue. Westward migration has always represented hope in America, but earlier migrations like that of the Mormons only replicated the emptiness and isolation they sought to leave behind. Now, in the last scene, Harper is migrating even farther west, as far west as she can go in America, to a place famous for its tolerance, loveliness, and left-wing politics, a city that is not coincidentally America's gay capital. The gathering on the rim of the Bethesda Fountain could have easily been staged in San Francisco's Castro District—both locations represent voluntary community, inclusion, civic participation, and personal promise.