Getting a leg up from your family is awfully nice. But what happens when that lift suddenly falls away? Such a precarious moment arrives for the idealistic young activist Emma Joseph early on in this appealingly intellectual drama by Amy Herzog, penned in 2010 and smartly produced at Theater J this month as an area premiere.
The play, at turns warmly funny and quietly sad, makes an eloquent case for self-reflection. Ask not what your family can do for you, Herzog suggests, but what it can’t.
As the young founder of a social justice fund named for her grandfather, Emma (played by Megan Anderson in a nicely grounded, layered performance) has begun her promising career firmly mounted atop the shoulders of two giants: her staunchly Marxist father Ben (the equally wonderful Peter Birkenhead) and his own political titan of a mother Vera (Nancy Robinette).
But a newly-uncovered family secret — that Vera’s late husband is not simply a heroic survivor of McCarthy’s blacklist but in fact spied for the Soviets during the 1950s — threatens to topple much of what Emma’s been taught to believe about her family’s self-proclaimed legacy.
Those who have seen Herzog’s intimately funny two-hander 4000 Miles, produced last spring at Studio Theatre, will be familiar with the character of Emma’s grandmother Vera Joseph. And Robinette, who takes on the role here with a guarded ferocity, makes as strong an impression as Tana Hicken did in Studio’s staging.
That play, set in the modern day, finds Vera in her nineties and coming to terms with the twilight of her life. But After the Revolution, set in 1999, offers us a chance to meet Vera in an earlier moment, and Robinette’s full-throated upholding of the Joseph family’s tenets are at turns inspiring and fearsome. With a supernova of a woman like this around, no wonder Emma is struggling to hit escape velocity.
Ben, in turn, has developed a rather inflated sense of the good served by his ideological convictions (that he’s allowed, as a teacher, to lecture the young for a living hasn’t done much to temper his ego), and the despairing certainty with which he assures Megan that old Joe Joseph’s treasons will forever sully the foundation that bears his name starts to sound a lot less like fatherly concern than it does like the flippant pessimism of a self-absorbed man.
This gives After The Revolution its rather unusual dramatic arc: Emma strives to discover a means of resolving her family’s woes, but the more pressing act may be to decide that this millstone wasn’t hers to carry in the first place.
A less astute script might lose our interest midway through, concerned as it is mainly with the heady anxieties of well-off Manhattanites. But Herzog’s deeper discovery here — that conversations between parents and children, particularly fathers and daughters, are packed with far more vulnerability and nuance than we typically see onstage — becomes more and more engaging as the evening progresses.
After the Revolution
Closes October 6, 2013
1529 Sixteenth Street, NW
2 hours, 30 minutes with 1 intermission
Tickets: $25 – $50
Emma and Ben’s estrangement and, later, attempts at reconciliation play here as genuinely moving dialogue, all of which churns with unspoken feelings, little surprises, and complex emotional reflexes. Birkenhead and Anderson bring great subtlety and warmth to these exchanges.
Strong supporting roles fill out After the Revolution with a rewardingly diverse array of perspectives — Emma’s laconic uncle Leo (Jeff Allin), her offbeat little sister Jess (Elizabeth Jernigan), her tenderhearted boyfriend and colleague Miguel (Carlos Saldana) Ben’s wryly funny wife Mel (Susan Rome, who is Theater J’s Associate Artist in Residence this season), and the delightfully witty family friend Morty (James Slaughter) each bring strong shading to an already well-wrought drama.
At heart, though, this is a father-and-daughter play struggling to shed its outer skin as a work of political intrigue. Both Ben and Emma suspect the root of the problem lies not in politics or belief but in gut instinct, and watching them try to articulate their mutual desire for empathy keeps us invested through to the end. Duty to the family is very different, it turns out, than simple duty to each other.
After The Revolution by Amy Herzog . Directed by Eleanor Holdridge . Featuring Nancy Robinette, Peter Birkenhead, Jeff Allin, Susan Rome, Megan Anderson, Carlos Saldaña, James Slaughter and Elizabeth Jernigan . Set design: Misha Kachman . Properties: Timothy Jerome Jones . Original music by Matthew M. Nielson . Costumes: Kendra Rai . Lights: Andrew Cissna . Sound: Patrick Calhoun . Produced by Theater J . Reviewed by Hunter Styles.
Lisa Traiger . WashingtonJewishWeek
Eve Tushnet . American Conservative
Lindsey Clark . Pamela’s Punch
Susan Davidson . CurtainUp
Chris Klimek . City Paper
Victoria Durham . MDTheatreGuide
Missy Frederick . Washingtonian
Jennifer Perry . BroadwayWorld
Nelson Pressley . Washington Post
John Stoltenberg . DCMetroTheaterArts