Chicago Theater Review: AFTER THE REVOLUTION (Next Theatre in Evanston)

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by Dan Zeff on April 16, 2012

in Theater-Chicago

I SAY YOU WANT THIS REVOLUTION

After the Revolution is a chewy new play about family dynamics and the difficulty of making moral judgments, especially after the fact. For audiences thirsting for a literate, intelligent, stimulating, and accessible new play, it will fill the bill nicely. The Amy Herzog 2010 drama premiered Off Broadway to strong reviews; that was just seventeen months ago. Now, it has been picked up by the Next Theatre in a solid production that features three generations of very fine local actors. (Currently, Herzog has another hit on her hands with 4000 Miles, which opened this month at Lincoln Center.)

Chicago Theater Review by Dan Zeff AFTER THE REVOLUTION Next Theatre in Evanston

After the Revolution centers on an East Coast Jewish family of ostentatiously liberal socio-political views. Ben Joseph (Mick Weber) is an in-your-face Marxist, a high school teacher who loves to roil the PTA with his outspoken left wing views. His daughter Emma (Christine Stulik) is a 26-year old woman who just graduated from law school and heads the Joe Joseph Fund, a legal fund dedicated to battling social injustice and named after her recently deceased grandfather. The fund’s current high profile cause is getting a new trial for a Black Panther leader convicted of killing a white police officer.

Emma’s hero is her grandfather, an iconic martyr to leftists for refusing to name names before congress in the 1950’s, costing him his government job and earning him a place on the McCarthy era blacklist. Emma’s ideals are shattered when her father informs her that Joe Joseph passed U.S. government secrets to the Soviet Union during World War II. Her sainted grandfather was actually a Russian spy who lied about his espionage activities under oath.

Chicago Theater Review by Dan Zeff AFTER THE REVOLUTION Next Theatre in Evanston

Emma is distraught over her grandfather’s perfidy and infuriated with her father for withholding the information, especially since he told her sister Jess (Dana Black) four years previously. The revelation leads to a rupture between Ben and Emma, with the many peripheral characters weighing in with their opinions to soothe the troubled domestic waters. It takes time for the spectator to sort out all of these relationships – and identifiers in the playbill would be helpful – but the characters include Ben’s female companion Mel (Tasha Anne James), his brother Leo (Phil Ridarelli), Ben’s stepmother Vera (Mary Ann Thebus), an elderly fund donor named Morty (Mike Nussbaum), and Emma’s boyfriend and fund co-worker Miguel (Marvin Quijada).

While Emma seethes with outrage over the revelation about her grandfather, people around her take a more temperate view. After all, the Soviet Union was our ally during the war and was making far greater sacrifices to defeat the fascists than the United States. Plus, the espionage took place decades ago (the play is set in 1999) when attitudes were far different. Family members imply that Emma should cut her grandfather some slack. He was imperfect (as we all are) but he was still a fearless foe of social injustice.

Chicago Theater Review by Dan Zeff AFTER THE REVOLUTION Next Theatre in Evanston

The play brings up challenging questions about the difficulty of assigning moral blame for acts that happened years ago in different circumstances. Emma disassociates herself from her father, who is crushed by her alienation, and the domestic fracture filters through the entire family. To her credit, Emma eventually undergoes a sea change in her social sensibilities. The civil rights movement is united in believing that the Black Panther was railroaded by a racist trial with a racist judge presiding. All this may be true, Emma says, but what if the man is guilty of murder anyhow. Surely that counts for something. Emma’s sudden wavering over the certainties of the liberal position about the Black Panther is anathema to ultra-liberals who wear blinders in holding up the Black Panther as a victim of a racist society, as if his guilt or innocence is irrelevant.

Emma is the lightning rod for Herzog’s play, but the character is also flawed. Emma’s reaction to her grandfather’s espionage comes across as a little prissy and self-indulgent. Emma’s anguish is more like a snit, assuming a judgmental stance that oozes self-righteousness. But then again, her disillusion is genuine so maybe it’s unfair to criticize her as a spoiled young woman who is angry that she’s been left out of the family loop. That’s just one more matter audiences can argue over.

Chicago Theater Review by Dan Zeff AFTER THE REVOLUTION Next Theatre in Evanston

Christine Stulik makes an impressive Next Theatre debut as the passionate, self-involved Emma. She is nicely matched with the dominating, and domineering, presence that Mick Weber gives Ben Joseph. As the senior citizens in the play, Mike Nussbaum and Mary Ann Thebus are a total joy in their few scenes, Nussbaum’s Morty being compassionate and droll and Thebus’s Vera feisty and opinionated (she has the play’s last words, and they are not conciliatory). There is also a good complementary contribution from Phil Ridarelli as the peacemaking Leo, who refuses to see issues in black and white doctrinaire fashion like a true far leftist. Marvin Quijada and Dana Black are also fine in roles that don’t get much playing time but still add shading to the story.

Kimberly Senior’s directing allows the script’s literacy, wit, and emotion to shine through with credible realism. Keith Pitts designed the detailed all-purpose interior set, Elizabeth Flauto the costumes, Christopher Kriz the sound, and Heather Gilbert the lighting.

Chicago Theater Review by Dan Zeff AFTER THE REVOLUTION Next Theatre in Evanston

It’s fashionable to sneer at political and social conservatives as intolerant ideologues, but After the Revolution paints left wingers with the same brush. It’s a novel position in contemporary American theater and one to give the thoughtful viewer pause. Can liberals like the Joseph family claim ownership to the moral high ground? Maybe, maybe not.

photos by Elissa Shortridge

After the Revolution
Next Theatre in Evanston
ends on May 13, 2012
Next Theatre closed its doors in 2014

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