In interviews playwright Amy Herzog has talked openly about the autobiographical elements of After the Revolution. produced by the Kathie Rasmussen Women’s Theatre (KRASS) and running at the Bartell Theatre through December 15. Her grandfather really was a noted Marxist named Joe Joseph and was questioned by HUAC for his ties to Communism. He really did commit espionage by giving the Russians classified documents, out of allegiance to the party. Herzog even put a younger version of herself at the center of the drama, explaining, “I spend a lot of time trying to see all sides of any issue.”
That is exactly Emma’s purpose in the show. Growing up in a very politically active family, Emma (a pleasant Caroline Peterson) is initially shocked when it’s revealed that her grandfather, revered for his championing of the poor and his resistance to government forces who would silence him, is exposed as a former spy. Throughout this meditation on betrayal, Emma tries to look at the issue from all sides and determine who to blame, who to excuse, and how to move forward. Her career as a lawyer, her charitable foundation fighting for social justice, and her relationships with her loved ones are all suddenly in jeopardy. At first it’s puzzling why the play doesn’t argue more about Joe Joseph’s guilt or innocence, but ultimately that’s not the issue. The biggest conflict is between Emma and her father Ben — the man who knew the truth and consciously kept it from his daughter for years.
Herzog’s skill is in exploring every facet, ever layer of betrayal — and there are many. Rather than being absorbed in what happens, audiences are asked to connect the dots after seeing a group of related scenes and coming to their own conclusions. It’s not a terribly satisfying narrative, but it is an interesting story to ponder.
Performances across the eight-person cast were uneven, but two actors stood out, both for their emotional range and their commitment to the material. As Ben, Stephen Montagna was every inch the conflicted and hurt father whose pride in his family’s lefty legacy and the accomplishments of his daughter Emma collided with his pain and guilt for letting her down. It’s fascinating to watch Montagna as an imperfect man wrestling simultaneously with his past and his future.
As Vera, the matriarch of the family, Max Ducey also turned in a moving performance. Though she comes off at first as fragile and out of touch, Vera’s a tough one and her insights are keen. Her indignation at her granddaughter’s betrayal of the family hero is one of the finest moments in the play.
Playing Emma, Caroline Peterson has the difficult task of being disappointed throughout the show. In nearly every scene, she comes off as pouty instead. Suddenly unmoored from the family mythology that had energized her life and ignited her passion for the law, Emma simply gives up and checks out. She stops going to work, stops believing in justice and stops trusting anyone. Her complete surrender reads like a cop out of a bratty kid, instead of the world-shaking stupor of a former true believer. And it’s hard to really empathize with someone who just wants to take her ball and go home when things get complicated.
The production’s set (design by Lu Meinders) very clearly delineates three playing spaces — a living room, a dining room and a restaurant — with the help of different colored, free-standing walls and basic furniture that is dressed up or down to indicate whose house we’re in. And lighting design by Alice Combs helped greatly in giving those spaces interest and texture.
Unfortunately the theater space was grossly under-utilized by directors Suzan Kurry and Amy C. May. Actors either stood still while having long phone conversations or sat still in couches or chairs. As a result the entire play felt very “stuck” — as if actors were incapable of walking and talking at the same time. The stagnant scenes didn’t help the already talky play.
For anyone who has been part of a family secret or has been betrayed by a parent, this story that will feel eerily familiar. But it’s worth asking if we, too, can look at our own histories from all sides.