BWW Reviews: Theater J Starts Season Strong with Clever, Thought-Provoking AFTER THE REVOLUTION
There's probably a good reason that Amy Herzog's plays have received so much attention on the regional theatre circuit following their strong productions in NY. Just last season, DC was formally introduced to this talented playwright with Studio Theatre's solid mounting of 4000 Miles. Although the more intense, but no less clever Belleville has not yet made it's DC premiere, it would not surprise me in the least if it makes an appearance in some theatre's season in the next few years. Currently, Theater J brings DC's attention to Herzog's other major work, After the Revolution. Collectively, they display the playwright's master-like ability to combine examinations of complex socio and/or political issues with raw and real stories about human connectivity in the modern age.
It's most fitting, perhaps, that Theater J takes on one of her works and this one in particular, which may be the most complex of them all. Never a company to shy away from presenting plays that really say something about modern society - warts and all - it's the perfect home for After the Revolution. Marxist politics, the muddy waters that one must traverse in the pursuit of social justice, questions of how to reconcile political activism and family bonds, and questions of how to put one's past in the context of the present/future are just some of the issues Herzog tackles in her compelling drama about the 'not-so-average yet average' Joseph family.
Seems like everything but the kitchen sink, no?
Well, not really. In lesser hands, maybe it would all be too much, too preachy, and too....well, agenda-based. However, Herzog is no average playwright and seemingly can easily avoid any or all of these trappings. Her own family experience which informs the play undoubtedly is crucial to helping her avoid sacrificing storytelling with presenting a message.
Likewise, the Theater J presentation of her work is no average production.
With careful, quiet, yet purposeful direction from Eleanor Holdridge, we're introduced to the late 1990s world in which recent NY-based law school graduate Emma Joseph (Megan Anderson, making her Theater J debut) inhabits. She grew up in a family where political activism - particularly of the Marxist variety - reigned supreme though to varying degrees. She intends to carry on this legacy.
Emma holds her now deceased grandfather Joe in the highest regard, naming her emerging legal organization after him and allowing his experience to serve as a reminder as to why the Fund will not shy away from taking on the headline-grabbing cases of perceived social injustice. A staunch communist throughout his life, which cost him his political career in the United States, Emma was always taught that Joe was a model to follow because he resisted any temptation to put his own good over what he could do for others no matter the cost. Now nearly deaf, but no less set in her political ways is Grandmother Vera (Nancy Robinette, making her usual strong showing - as if we could expect any less) who is not one to mince words. Father Ben (Peter Birkenhead), his wife Mel (Susan Rome), and Uncle Leo (Jeff Allin) are also committed to social justice in one form or another. Ben - a school teacher in an affluent NYC suburb - revels in even bringing such activism to the PTA. Sister Jess (an appropriately flawed, but grounded Elizabeth Jernigan) - a frequent patient at rehab centers - is pretty much the odd woman out and widely regarded as a bit of the family screw-up. That is, until, 'the secret' is revealed.
When a new book sheds light on Joe's past - a past that involves a case of espionage for the Russians - Emma's world is in major flux and suddenly she's not so certain about her convictions. She begins to doubt some or all that she knows, shuts out her family who has kept the secret from her, and when things get particularly bad, shuts out her also politically active, but slightly less militant, boyfriend Miguel (Carlos Saldaña). When all is said and done, she's forced to reconcile who she is, what she believes, and what she wants her legacy to be with her own family history. How is she to form her own identity in light of what she now knows? Is this new knowledge all that important in the long run in shaping how she sees herself, her family, her relationship to it, and her goals?
Politics and relationships. It's all very messy.
Theater J's production balances the complex, macro social issues at play in Emma's world - ones that should resonate well in the politically savvy Washington DC theatergoing community - with issues that are also not particularly black or white, but are more universal - the one's that can be found in nearly every family, the ones we try as hard as we might, try to keep from surfacing. Of course, maybe they're not as pronounced as what's found in the Joseph household, but the same general premise still holds true.
A solid cast - especially Anderson as the passionate yet still learning 20-something Emma - dives in head first to tackle this messy yet seamless story. Resisting any temptation to become too overwrought or over-the-top, it is as successful with the political humor (insert a nonchalant mention of a picture of Fidel Castro's picture in Ben's bedroom and a brief discussion of late 1990s politics under the Clinton administration and how the world situation can't get much worse) as the gut-wrenching drama (watch for the culminating scene between Robinette and Anderson and the final confrontation between Birkenhead and Anderson).
Even as the first act meanders slightly in the middle and Herzog gets caught up in rehashing the same historical political debate more than once, the cast never loses sight of the end goal - a situation made abundantly clear in the exceedingly powerful second half of the second act.
Strong design elements - particularly Misha Kachman's set (it won't be spoiled here, but who knew a set could be so practical yet so filled with political imagery?) - complement the strong acting. Patrick Calhoun's sound design expresses the sense of urgency in Emma's world without taking focus away from the telling of the even more powerful story.
If this is how Theater J starts its season, I can't wait to see what's to come.
Running Time: Approximately 2 hours and 10 minutes, including an intermission.
Photo: (L to R): Nancy Robinette and Megan Anderson; by Stan Barouh.