Family politics are prickly enough, but throw in a proudly political left-wing clan and you’ve got the makings of some proletariat pyrotechnics.
Amy Herzog’s play After the Revolution is based on some of the comrades in her family tree and her depiction of her kinfolks’ quirks are both fond and acutely observed. Not much gets past Herzog’s gimlet eye, as this sweeping saga of family myths and personal identity proves.
Baltimore’s Centerstage is putting on a mini-festival of Herzog’s plays and After the Revolution goes first, followed by 4000 Miles. Both plays deal with the same family, but the styles differ, with After the Revolution more storm-tossed and operatic and 4000 Miles intimate and reflective.
The Josephs are the family depicted in Herzog’s works and they are an exuberant lot, even by activist standards. They are all in thrall of the late patriarch Joe, a card-carrying member of the Communist party who stayed firm in his progressivism beliefs even while giving testimony in the hounding McCarthy hearings of the 1950s.
It is now 1999 and firebrand grand-daughter Emma (Ashton Heyl) has named her foundation after Joe Joseph—a foundation that is advocating on behalf of Mumia Abu-Jamal, the journalist and former Black Panther who was wrongfully convicted in 1982 for shooting a Philadelphia police officer and received what many thought was an unfair trial.
The idealistic Emma draws parallels between Mumia and Joe, whom she believes were both persecuted for their beliefs. Yet, it is her convictions that are tested when a book comes out claiming that Joe was a Soviet spy during WWII.
The book will reveal a family secret that everyone knew but Emma. She is enraged over not being told earlier by her father, Ben (Arye Gross), an absurdly idealistic Marxist—I mean, even her sister Jess (Kelly McCrann, strikingly idiosyncratic with her stoner cadences and hand signals), a serial rehab visitor and perennial black sheep, knew about Grandpa Joe.
And she’s confused by her grandmother Vera’s (Lois Markle) sharp, whale-boned response—Emma wasn’t there back in the 40s and 50s and had no idea what Joe had to endure, so she should basically just shut up and deal.
The play centers on Emma’s reaction to the scandal and how it affects her relationships and her feeling of self-righteousness that she’s on the right side and doing the right thing—just as her hardcore lefty family has always been. How do you let go of a heroic family legacy and just be the person you are?
Director Lila Neugebauer intelligently handles the almost Chekhovian frailties and strengths of a close-knit family completely invested in their stories. She keeps the focus on Emma and her determinedly colorful clan by setting the action in a strikingly utilitarian set by Daniel Zimmerman bathed in revealing white light.
AFTER THE REVOLUTION
March 18 – May 17
700 North Calvert Street
Baltimore, Maryland 21202
2 hours, 15 minutes with 1 intermission
Tickets: $10 – $59
Details and Tickets or call 410.986.4000
As Ben, Gross makes the character affectionately amusing—how can you not chuckle at a blazing liberal who wishes that one of his daughters were a lesbian and perkily speaks Spanish to Emma’s Latino boyfriends—but also shows the streak of nobility in a man so rooted in his convictions. He’s a good guy, an extroverted mensch—and Mark Zeisler provides an excellent study in contrasts as his low-key, contemplative brother Leo.
Susan Rome has a lovely moment when she tells her stepdaughter Emma an anecdote from her past about her cavalier treatment by the Josephs, revealing in a calm, kind way how hard it can be to live in a family that is bound not by love, but by beliefs. Alejandro Rodriguez also adds some lightness and leavening as Emma’s boyfriend Miguel.
For all her struggles, it isn’t easy to warm up to Emma—there isn’t any fragility or vulnerability in Heyl’s stubbornly black-and-white portrayal of a career activist. Emma’s as hard as her grandmother Vera, who in Markle’s depiction is more of a figurehead than a person.
Both could use a bit of the character Morty (Peter Van Wagner), a wealthy donor who dwells comfortably in the gray areas of life. Even smart, well-meaning people, he tells her, have a hard time doing what’s right in tough situation, so don’t knock them until you’ve been there. Amen to that.
After the Revolution by Amy Herzog . Directed by Lila Neugebauer . Featuring Arye Gross, Ashton Heyl, Sullivan Jones, Lois Markle, Kelly McCann, Alejandro Rodriguez, Susan Rome and Peter Van Wagner . Set Design: Daniel Zimmerman . Costume Design: Asta Hostetter . Lighting Design: Eric Southern . Original Music and Sound Design: Brandon Wolcott . Dramaturgs: Catherine Rodriquez and Gavin Witt . Casting Director: Stephanie Klapper . Assistant Director: Brandon Butts . Produced by Center Stage . Reviewed by Jayne Blanchard.