“Whose side are you on?” When the news bytes require you to choose pro or con — on gun control, Syria, immigration, health care and any number of other hot-button political issues tearing at the fabric of the American democracy — playwright Amy Herzog can’t be too far off her target, even if her play, After the Revolution, is sent in fin de siecle 1999, rather than 2013.
That means the premise for her family play is not ripped from the headlines, but in her able hands as a rising new-generation playwright, the work, Theater J’s season opener, feels au courant. Herzog, a self-described red-diaper baby weaned on Marxist philosophy, draws on her grandparents’ experiences in the 1950s at the height of the McCarthy era, when the question of where one stood — with or against the Communist Party, with or against the U.S. government — was a matter of utmost importance, even life or death, particularly among the urban, Jewish, rising middle-class set.
This, the second Herzog work performed in Washington, D.C., uses familiar characters and her personal experiences and family history. This past spring, Studio Theatre’s production of her 4000 Miles is the sequel to this, her first work featuring her colorful and opinionated grandmother Leepee Joseph, whom she renames Vera Joseph for the stage.
Theater J’s production concerns Vera’s granddaughter, 26-year-old Emma Joseph, an outspoken activist lawyer who drank the liberal Kool-Aid her parents served up. In fact, her father Ben insisted on calling the portable music player a “Walkperson” rather than a Walkman — we’re deeply back in the late 1980s and ’90s here. Emma’s cause celebre is Mumia Abu-Jamal, the former Black Panther convicted in 1982 for shooting a Philadelphia cop, who is on death row. Emma, played by an at-times overwrought Megan Anderson, assimilated a family history that turns out to have been false – and shattering for this free-thinking lefty.
Her father Ben, a laissez-faire Peter Birkenhead, neglected to color in the lines of his father’s Communist Party history. This gap leaves his daughter not only disappointed but without a compass. Her boyfriend, Miguel (patiently played by Carlos Saldana) loses faith, but elderly (and wealthy) family friend and benefactor Morty, the affable James Slaughter, has become far more pragmatic and accepting. Age and experience do that. Emma though fights the battles of the young and just. She can afford to, raised as she was in middle-class comfort. Grandmother Vera, finely envisioned by Nancy Robinette, in this work has a less dominant role than in Herzog’s later 4000 Miles. Even so, her strong opinions and unrepentant politics bleed through the sometimes overly talky scenes.
The play with its talkative, upper-crust liberal family of characters, unspools before a stage-size swath of bright red fabric, contributed by designer Misha Kachman, as if we didn’t know that the central theme wrestles with a family’s legacy and its Communist past. Director Eleanor Holdridge manages the eight-member cast with aplomb, mining Herzog’s smart, loquacious dialogue for zingers, but the play feels long — and talky; a Theater J trait.
Even with all of Emma’s self-critical examination of her grandfather’s past and her own identity as a political activist, the work doesn’t have the heft of some Theater J plays that have left a stronger impression. Emma’s willingness to hang her own future on newly discovered fault lines in her family past doesn’t offer a strong or compelling enough conflict to underscore the choices she faces.
After the Revolution provides instead a sometimes pedantic look back at a time when political beliefs could wrench a society and a family. In wrestling with conviction and commitment to principles, grandmother Vera ultimately recalls a past when she declares, “Most people [then] were for something.”
After the Revolution is onstage through Oct. 6 at the Washington, DC Jewish Community Center in the District. For tickets call 800-494-8497 or visit www.boxofficetickets.com.