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The Rousuck Review: "After The Revolution"

Richard Anderson

Maryland Morning theatre critic J. Wynn Rousuck traveled to the Center Stage this week to see After The Revolution. This is the first show in Center Stage's two-part Amy Herzog Festival bringing the young playwright's work to the Charm City.  The show will run through May 17th, 2015. 

The word “revolution” crops up three times in the play, “After the Revolution.” Each time, it refers to a much-anticipated political revolution. But another type of revolution reverberates throughout Amy Herzog’s 2010 play – a revolution within a family. “After the Revolution” is one of two plays by Herzog inspired by her own radical, left-wing family. Both it and “4000 Miles” have been produced across the country, but Center Stage is the first theater to produce them together, in repertory.
Part One of The Herzog Festival, “After the Revolution,” is on stage now. Part Two, “4000 Miles,” begins previews Wednesday. The semi-autobiographical Joseph family figures into both plays. The family’s revered patriarch, Joe Joseph, was a member of the Communist party. He was blacklisted during Senator McCarthy’s witch hunts for the House Un-American Activities Committee in the 1950s. Joe’s a hero to his widow, grown children and especially to Emma, his granddaughter and the protagonist of “After the Revolution.” This red diaper grandchild heads a legal fund she named for her grandfather. The fund is dedicated to combating an unjust system that punishes “vocal progressives,” as she puts it. Emma is living out what she sees as her late grandfather’s ideals.

Then a long-buried fact surfaces about Grandpa Joe’s political activities. It’s part of a book that’s about to be published. Emma’s father, Ben (played by Arye Gross), and his brother, Leo (played by Mark Zeisler), realize the impact that this revelation could have on Emma and the fund to which she has dedicated her life. But they don’t realize the rift this information will cause between Emma and her father.

Herzog’s writing and the intense portrayals of Arye Gross and Ashton Heyl as father and daughter demonstrate how similar these two are. Both are given to speechifying, both are passionate about politics and Joe Joseph’s legacy, and both are unwilling to back down. When Emma stops speaking to her father, Gross movingly conveys Ben’s sadness, tinged with anger, particularly in the messages he leaves on Emma’s voicemail. Emma appears to be the only family member who was unaware of what she sees as a serious stain on her grandfather’s history. Her step-grandmother, Vera, played by a stern Lois Markle, is distressed about the book that’s coming out – but she hates the messenger, not the message. Judging from her vehemence, Grandma Vera can be as headstrong as Emma.

Director Lila Neugebauer makes most of the familial connections credible and strong, though the depictions of Emma’s uncle and sister seem out of sync, almost disengaged. And while Ashton Heyl captures Emma’s fervor, she can’t do much with a script that barely allows her character to budge, much less grow. Designer Daniel Zimmerman’s set also presents difficulties.

The set is a wide living room that does multiple duty as: Grandma Vera’s apartment, Emma’s parents’ home, Emma’s apartment, her sister’s apartment, her uncle’s house and a restaurant. Zimmerman may have intended his unchanging design to remind us that this is one family unit. But in practice, the set often leaves us wondering where we are. Amy Herzog is an award-winning playwright who has been absent from Baltimore’s theaters until now. As the local introduction to her work, “After the Revolution” places Herzog firmly in the midst of a growing trend of American political playwrights. Center Stage’s production isn’t quite satisfying or unsettling (more the response I suspect the playwright intended). But the Josephs are a smart, challenging and vexing bunch, and I look forward to spending more time with members of this spiky clan in “4000 Miles.” -- J. Wynn Rousuck

J. Wynn Rousuck has been reviewing theater for WYPR's Midday (and previously, Maryland Morning) since 2007. Prior to that, she was the theater critic of The Baltimore Sun, where she reviewed more than 3,000 plays over the course of 23 years.