BWW Reviews: Family Conflict with a Political Edge in AFTER THE REVOLUTION at Portland Playhouse
Family histories are complicated. Everyone gets bits of family lore passed down to them, filtered through selective memories and the urge to make their loved ones look better than they were, and all most of us can do is pick through the tales and try to glean bits of truth here and there. My father, for example, only wanted to tell the funny, cheerful anecdotes from his past; it fell to my mother, who witnessed most of it, to fill me in on the darker parts of his background. Then again, my mother left out so much of her own past that I spent a significant part of my teen years thinking that Israeli prime minister Menachem Begin was my biological father. (As far as I can tell at this point, he wasn't, but it would explain a few things if he were.)
Emma Joseph, the heroine of Amy Herzog's play After the Revolution, reveres her late grandfather. Joe Joseph was an unapologetic Communist who testified before Congress and was blacklisted in the 1950s, and Emma, a recent law school graduate, has devoted herself to the same leftist causes that he supported. She's started up a charity called The Joe Joseph Fund and appears to be very good at raising money and getting the right kind of media attention. As the play begins, she's working on the case of Mumia Abu Jabal, a real-life Philadelphia man accused of murdering a police officer; there were questions at the time (1999) about the validity of his death sentence. Her father, a Boston schoolteacher, is proud of her, and her grandfather's widow (there are a lot of divorces in the Joseph family) appreciates her sacrifices...but also wants her to find a nice Jewish boy and get married.
Then a book comes out naming Joe as having given information to the Soviets during World War II. Everyone in the family has an opinion on the topic; was it justifed at the time (the Soviets were, at the time, our allies) or did Joe put his allegiance to the Communist Party ahead of his U.S. citizenship? Emma is devastated by the revelation and immediately wants to distance herself from her grandfather. She goes into a depression, refusing to speak to her father, hiding at her uncle's house, trying to have a civil conversation with her grandmother, and squabbling with her boyfriend, a fellow activist.
To Herzog's credit, the answers aren't easy, and Emma spends the play struggling to decide how she feels about her grandfather's actions, taking input from everyone around her while trying to figure out how best to honor his legacy - even as she's still unsure what that legacy actually is. Every character has a different angle on the situation, and each gets the chance to articulate those feelings, but the play is constructed as an emotional family drama more so than a political drama. Even at the end, Emma comes to her own decision about how to handle the family history, but Herzog throws one last zinger at us to upend our perspective on that choice.
Director Tamara Fisch has chosen to emphasize the family drama here as well. The play is set in a book-lined living room that mutates to represent a series of living rooms (Emma's, her father's, her uncle's, and her grandmother's, as well as a fancy restaurant) without resorting to high-tech tricks or fancy lighting. Portland Playhouse has one of the most adaptable playing spaces I've ever seen; the seats are in a different configuration every time I go there, and Andrea Bush's scenic design uses the space exceptionally well. The tone is gentle throughout; even as the family drama ratchets up, there are one-liners and subplots to keep things from growing too tense, and Fisch keeps us guessing as to where the ultimate solution lies.
She's done a fine job casting the play as well. Duffy Epstein is warm and empathetic as Emma's father, and he's well matched by Lorraine Bahr as his wryly contradictory wife. John Steinkamp offers quiet support as Emma's uncle, who has his own demons. Anne Sorce brings a darker humor as Emma's recovering-addict sister, while Jonas D. Israel brings a gentler tone to the role of one of Emma's donors, who seems like a comic relief character at first but has his own rational take on the situation. Luke Bartholomew is wonderful as Miguel, Emma's boyfriend, who tries to understand why Emma chose him and what exactly their relationship is based on; is it love or just politics? Best of all is Vana O'Brien as Vera, Joe's widow, a cantankerous, hard-of-hearing old lefty who seems not to understand much of what's happening, but turns out to know more that anyone expected; she sees right through the liberal pieties and makes the personal and political sides of the story one and the same.
The only weak link is Jennifer Rowe as Emma. While she's a talented actress who I can imagine being delightful in the right role, Emma needs to be a force of nature, and Rowe just isn't dynamic enough to pull it off. This is a character who's valedictorian of her law-school class, who's started a legal defense fund, charmed major donors, and gotten herself national notice by the age of twenty-six, and Rowe's sweet, soft-spoken delivery isn't believable here. (I kept wondering what the performance might have been like if the tart-tongued Sorce had played Emma instead.) It's not a bad acting job, it's just the wrong choice, and it leaves the show just a bit short of wonderful.
Still, a play this incisive that makes an audience laugh, think, and debate the very nature of family relationships is well worth seeing, and Portland Playhouse should be commended for putting it on their schedule. You may not get to pick your families, but you do get to pick your evening's entertainment, and After the Revolution is an excellent choice on both counts.