Late-Breaking Review: ‘After the Revolution’

Portland Playhouse's ideologically challenging show should keep conversations going even after it closes.

We see your clever double meaning, playwright Amy Herzog. Sure, the title After the Revolution can (and does) refer to the play’s setting in a consciously post-Soviet era…but more broadly, it shows how people react after a sudden shift in perspective. A one-eighty. An about-face. A revolution.

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Emma Joseph (Jen Rowe) has just graduated from law school and made it her mission to appeal the unfair trials of culturally disenfranchised defendants, including but not limited to a former Black Panther named Mumia found guilty of killing a cop. Confident in her family’s legacy of liberal righteousness, she’s named her nonprofit foundation after her grandfather, an unapologetic Communist during the McCarthy era. But just as Emma’s work is gaining momentum, she learns that her grandfather also spied for Stalin. The revelation leaves her reeling, as unsure of her foundation’s future as her family’s past.

This show, on for one more weekend at Portland Playhouse (it closes on Sunday, June 1), doesn’t quite conform to Freytag’s pyramid. Instead, the climax comes early, falling out in a burst of divergent paths as various characters react differently to the same big news. Emma’s father, Ben (Duffy Epstein), her grandmother, Vera (Vana O’Brien), and her generous benefactor, Morty (Jonas D. Israel) want to minimize the damaging spy stuff lest it overshadow their hero’s more admirable acts.

It’s not that they deny his problematic activities, exactly…it’s just that they choose to focus elsewhere, like on his brave and consistent refusal to “name names” under McCarthyist interrogation. (Snippets of his fictitious transcript closely echo real-life testimony of folk singer Pete Seeger). Ben’s wife, Mel (Lorraine Bahr), and his brother, Leo (John Steinkamp), Emma’s uncle, just want everyone to get along; they prioritize their present family relationships over ideology and past politics. Emma’s sister, Jen (Anne Source) and her younger cousins seem generally disinterested in the conflict. Emma’s boyfriend, Miguel (Luke Bartholomew) lands somewhere in between. He’s also a newly minted civil rights attorney and working alongside (or under?) Emma at the foundation. He values exposition and truth, but he doesn’t want to let this new revelation compromise his current work or his personal relationship with Emma.

Emma takes it the worst, first freaking and then checking out. Will she be able to reconcile her principles with these new complications? And how will she ultimately treat the people in her life who disagree with her adamant world-views? This is a subtle, realistic drama of family dynamics and unsatisfactory compromises that ends with the word “no.” But it begins a dialogue that audiences will likely continue on their own.

Here are some take-home thoughts to fuel your own post-play parlor argument:

  • Clinton-era declarations of “the poor are getting poorer…it can’t get much worse” get a wry chuckle in retrospect, because of course we know it did. We’re still saying the same thing now, which prompts the question: how much worse can it get from this new low?
  • When liberal white people act almost desperately friendly toward people of color, are they proving how accepting they are, or actually revealing subconscious racism?
  • How much of “doing the right thing” is an obligation, and how much is it a luxury enjoyed by generally safe, privileged people?
  • How much of “doing what we had to do” (even if it’s wrong or leads to some bad results) can be justified in service of “the greater good?”
  • Which question is paramount to justice: guilt versus innocence, or fair versus unfair circumstances? If you have to only choose one, do you rule in favor of innocence or fair treatment?

After any revolution, there has to be a restructuring, a sifting through real or metaphorical rubble and a subsequent decision of what to take and leave.

 

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