(Act One is subtitled "Bad News")
The play opens with Rabbi Isador Chemelwitz alone onstage with a small wooden coffin. He is preaching the funeral of Sarah Ironson, the grandmother of a large, assimilated Jewish family. Rabbi Chemelwitz admits he did not know Sarah, whose later years in the Bronx Home for Aged Hebrews were sad and quiet, but that he knows her type: the strong, uncomplaining peasant women of Eastern Europe who immigrated to America to build authentic homes for their children. Her kind soon will no longer exist, he says.
Meanwhile, Joe Pitt is waiting in Roy Cohn's office while Roy nimbly manipulates several blinking phone lines. Roy switches between arguing with a client whose court date he missed, arranging theater tickets for the wife of a visiting judge, and cursing out an underling. Joe watches him uncomfortably. As Roy uses swear words, Joe asks him not to take the Lord's name in vain, explaining that he is a Mormon. Roy praises Joe's work as a judicial clerk—he writes decisions for his boss to sign—and then offers him a powerful job in the Justice Department. Joe, pleased but surprised, says he needs to talk to his wife.
Joe's wife Harper is sitting alone in their apartment talking to herself and worrying—she imagines the ozone layer disappearing. Mr. Lies, a travel agent who Harper imagines, suddenly appears. Harper asks for a guided tour of Antarctica to see the hole in the ozone layer. She confesses her terrible fears about the world and the state of her marriage. Joe returns home and Mr. Lies vanishes; he asks her if she would like to move to Washington.
The scene cuts to Louis Ironson, Sarah's grandson, and his lover Prior Walter. They are sitting on a bench outside the funeral home and Louis is about to leave for the cemetery. He remembers his grandmother and apologizes to Prior for not introducing him, saying that family events make him feel closeted. Louis asks why Prior is in a bad mood, assuming it is because their cat, Little Sheba, is missing. Instead, Prior rolls up his sleeve and reveals a Kaposi's sarcoma lesion, an infectious disease that accompanies AIDS. Prior is glib but Louis panics, grabbing him; Prior admits he did not tell him earlier because he is afraid Louis will leave him. Louis says he needs to go to the cemetery but promises he will come back afterwards.
Joe asks Harper if she is willing to move to Washington, but she asks him to turn the job down, offering a series of lame, unconvincing excuses and ridiculous fears. Joe asks her how many Valium pills she has taken today; after first denying it, she admits she has had three. At first he tries to calm her, promising that things are changing for good in the world, but then gets angry at her obstinacy and accuses her of having emotional problems. When they make up, Harper suggests they try oral sex, but Joe is shocked and unnerved. Meanwhile, across the stage, Louis asks Rabbi Chemelwitz what the Bible says about someone who abandons a loved one in a time of need, confessing that he is afraid of disease and death. The rabbi has no satisfying answer for him.
Although the beginning of Act One only gives brief glimpses of the play's central characters, it nevertheless reveals the conflicts that will confront them for the rest of the play. Louis and Prior experience a terrible shock—Prior's revelation that he has AIDS—and that awful moment signals the inevitable destruction of their relationship. Prior tells Louis he is afraid he will leave him, but rather than comforting him or telling him he loves him, Louis just says "Oh," then says he has to go. Only with prompting does Louis say he will come home. From that queasy beginning we can predict the downward arc of their relationship and Louis's agonized questions to the rabbi only confirm our suspicions. Similarly, the brief pause with which Joe says he was "just out" and that Harper has nothing to get anxious about indicates the opposite—she has something significant indeed to make her anxious, the state of her marriage, as she confesses to Mr. Lies. These seemingly tiny moments and phrases are miniature versions of larger, future patterns.
The beginning of the play also presages some of the most important recurring themes in Angels in America. In particular, Rabbi Chemelwitz's opening monologue introduces an idea that becomes especially critical after the Angel's appearance in Perestroika: the opposition between continuity and change. Sarah Ironson's journey to the New World is emblematic of the human tendency and the necessity to migrate, the necessity that so troubles the Angels in Part Two of the play. Her migration was literally motivated by survival, an escape from oppression, yet it is symbolic of every person's need to move. As the rabbi says, "In you that journey is"—"you" being both the audience members and the other characters in the play, including Louis and Prior, as yet unseen in the crowd at Sarah's funeral. Yet even within the context of Sarah's migration an anti-migratory impulse is also present. The rabbi points out that Sarah Ironson and her kind tried to recreate the Old World in the New, to stave off the disruptive influence of a completely new society and, in particular, that of America, the world's most famously changing and changeable country. That this reactionary impulse is ultimately thwarted can be detected in the very un-Jewish names of Sarah's descendants. But the desire to prevent change moves Sarah and people like her to take on a heavy burden, one which she metaphorically carries "on her back" and which eventually distances her from the fully assimilated grandchildren on whose behalf she sacrifices.
The rabbi is wrong on one count, when he says that "such Great Voyages do not any more exist." The entire play, of course, is the story of many Great Voyages: Louis's transgression and his attempt to overcome it, Joe's emergence from the closet, Roy's journey to what Shakespeare called "the undiscovered country," Harper's growing self-confidence and assurance, culminating in her night flight to San Francisco; and most importantly, Prior's voyage to Heaven and back, his painful decision that he does indeed want more life. The play is a voyage in the political sense, too, documenting the struggle for full citizenship by gays and lesbians and by people with AIDS. In real life, Kushner argues for a politics of solidarity, in which different people's fights against oppression overlap and reinforce one another. In that light, it would be odd for him to endorse the idea that the immigrant experience is a unique Great Voyage that cannot be repeated. In Kushner's universe, it is repeated constantly, by members of different groups who share the same dream of democratic inclusion.