Actress Denise Gough Pays Homage to Bygone Angels

Posted May 4, 2018 3:59 p.m. EDT

NEW YORK — Denise Gough stood on the edge of the New York City AIDS Memorial Park, on the corner of Seventh Avenue and 12th Street, and looked across the street. A row of luxury condominiums and ground-level retail spaces now stands on the site of the demolished St. Vincent’s Hospital.

In a couple of hours, Gough, 38, would head uptown to the Neil Simon Theater, where she is performing as Harper Pitt in the Broadway revival of Tony Kushner’s “Angels in America,” a play that has just been nominated for 11 Tony Awards, including one for Gough as best featured actress.

Right now, though, she was struck at what had happened to the Greenwich Village institution that plays a critical role in the play.

In the 1980s, the hospital was home to many of the city’s AIDS patients, and it is where the lead character of the play, Prior Walter (Andrew Garfield), spends much of his time battling his illness and feverishly hallucinating about the afterworld that seems to be beckoning him.

“I don’t know if I would be able to live there, in a place where all that happened,” she said quietly, her eyes squinting in the harsh sun.

“The hospital should never have been torn down. It should have been left alone and remained as a memorial. This is like a precious site. It held the lives of all those people.”

She looked again, paused for a moment, and then joked: “Well, I hope a lot of fabulous gay men live there now. That would at least be something.”

Though she has been appearing in “Angels” since late February, and is subletting an apartment a few blocks away, this was the first time Gough had been inside the park.

“The boys have been down here, of course, doing their research,” she said of her male cast mates. “But I was off with the Mormons.” (She plays a Mormon from Utah, who struggles with a pill addiction and the revelation that her husband is gay.)

Perhaps because spring had finally arrived, the park was full of activity: a mother playing with her two young children; an older woman with her caretaker; several people out walking their dogs; a family of four visiting from France; people working on their laptops or listening to music on their headphones; a group of six young men, gathered on the steps, throwing shade at one another and laughing loudly at the put-downs.

But as Gough walked under the 18-foot metal canopy, made from three connected triangles, on the northwest corner of the park and watched two children play in the water sculpture at its center, all the sounds seemed to fade away. Even the playing children were momentarily silent.

“Oh, this is something, isn’t it?” she said, kneeling down to trace her hand along some of the lines from Walt Whitman’s “Leaves of Grass” that the artist Jenny Holzer had embedded in the granite paving stones. “I hope I don’t start suddenly bawling.”

She stood up and looked out at the park.

“I’m glad it’s so open and that there are so many people here,” she said. “For so long, AIDS was an illness that was shrouded in shame. Now, homage is being paid, as it should be.”

The park officially opened in 2016 after a long and sometimes contentious battle over what should be done with the space when St. Vincent’s closed.

“It’s really beautiful,” she said in her soft Irish accent, so different from the flat Midwestern tang of Harper. (Gough grew up in County Clare.) “It’s soothing.”

We crossed the street to go to Elephant & Castle, a neighborhood staple that during much of the 1980s was a refuge for family and friends visiting patients at St Vincent’s, seeking comfort food and solace from what was then a terrifying and an inexplicable plague.

“I’ve never been here,” she said, walking in and shrugging out of the vintage trench coat that was covering her dark gray T-shirt and black pants. “It’s lovely.”

Over calamari and sparkling water, she talked about the transfer of “Angels” from London, where it played for eight months at the National Theater, to New York and how the audience reaction had, to her mind, changed the production and made it even better.

It’s clear, she said, that to many people in the theater, the story being told is a personal one.

“You can feel it in the audience,” she said. “You can really feel that they saw this time, that they lived through this.”

But it’s not just the audiences who have changed. Gough says her performance as Harper is different as well, partly because of the change of actors who play her husband, Joe, a closeted lawyer.

Russell Tovey, who played Joe in London, was “brilliant,” she said, but he played a character who “was very sure he was gay.”

In contrast, she said, Lee Pace, who plays the role in New York, “is battling with it much more.”

She explained: “In London, my Harper was responding to a man who knew he was gay and was just in that marriage because he had to be. With Lee’s Joe, there is something there — ‘I’m not sure he knows; does he know?’ — that I think makes Harper more human. She’s trying to please, but she will never be able to please.”

The result, Gough said, is that she believes that Harper now comes across as a “more heroic” character.

“To me, she represents so many women who ignore their instincts, who are told that your job is to marry and have babies,” she said. “Make it work. It doesn’t matter if this guy’s gay, or doesn’t love you, Make it work. It’s your job. I’m so proud of her when she walks away from him at the end.”

Others seem to have noticed a shift in tone as well.

In his review of her performance in London, The New York Times critic Ben Brantley wrote that the “normally wonderful” Gough “goes for a flatline, depressive affect that makes Harper often tedious company.” Of her Broadway performance, he wrote, “her Harper now shimmers with wit and the promise of a buried resourcefulness.”

And even though the task was daunting — “I remember saying to Andrew, ‘I don’t want to play Harper another six months; I really don’t want to'” — Gough said she always knew this production had to come to New York.

“If we hadn’t taken it to Broadway, after doing it in London, it would have been mortifying,” she said. “It feels like we are taking it home.”