After the Revolution by Amy Herzog. Directed by Carolyn Cantor. Reviewed by J. Peter Bergman
Mare Winningham and Peter Friedman; photo: T. Charles Erickson
Katharine Powell and Lois Smith; photo: Sam Hough
"Nobody told me that honest criticism was not allowed."
In a perfect world in a perfect play each character would perfectly express his/her thoughts, feelings, emotional needs, political beliefs, morals and mores, and we would leave the theater in a perfect state, perfectly understanding the meaning of the piece and able to perfectly discuss the play in all its aspects. "After the Revolution" comes so close to being that play, but for me at least it leaves us with a hanging chad, an unfinished vote, a stopping point and not an ending. Up to that point, though, Herzog held me to that impossible standard of perfection.
Here is a very talented writer dealing with a tough subject. Emmaís grandfather, whom she has idealized with a foundation that supports nearly hopeless causes, turns out to have been a spy for the Russians in the 1940s. Crushed by the news, and the additional news that she is the last to know about this, she crashes emotionally and morally and has to find her way back into the relationships that have created her and held her in thrall for most of her life. In the version of the play now on the Nikos Stage at the Williamstown Theatre Festival she almost makes her way there, but weíre not sure if she has, or if she ever will. It does leave you with lots to talk about, lots to think about, but one of those "think" things is what happened to....? and you can fill in the blanks.
The good folks in Williamstown have assembled an extraordinary company to present this play which was developed in workshop at the Festival in 2009. Katharine Powell plays Emma, the girl with the mind that wonít shut down - ever. Playing a thinker is something akin to stepping in a bear trap out in the woods: you are held fast in one spot; it hurts; you yell until youíre blue in the face; perhaps someone comes to help you and perhaps not. Thinking on stage is one of the most difficult dramatic concepts and Powell has mastered the look and feel of it. For all we know she is conceiving her supper for after the show, but her face and body, the tone of her voice would have you believe she is thinking about the issues in the play, about the parent-child relationship that keeps the play alive, about her own grandmother and the one played by Lois Smith who might not like each other if they ever met. Her performance is at the center of the play and she holds center stage even in the scenes for which she is off-stage.
Her father, the villain if there needs to be one and I am not sure there needs to be one, is played by Peter Friedman. If ever an actor found the key to confusion it is Peter Friedman. He gives us a man who knows what he wants but not how to find it. He shows us the inner workings of a second generation American anarchist, one who plays it safe rather than explosive. He does this all with a simplicity and honesty that is revelatory.
Mark Blum plays his brother, a source of constant energy and solace. Blum is the complete package in this play, losing himself entirely in the character he portrays. As Emmaís confidante he could not be better. As his own brotherís conscience he is a human-sized Jiminy Cricket, cute and cuddly and available for chats. Their mother is played by Lois Smith and her deafness comes across as a tool for reconsideration. She seems to play the "canít hear you" card at all the right moments for the other folks on stage as they speak truths, or half-truths. A gem of a character is played by a valuable stage asset, a diamond in the rough.
One of the oddest, most real people in the play is a woman named Mel, the step-mother, or "beautiful mother" of Emma, played here by Mare Winningham. Whether she is discovered talking over her husbandís monologue, or telling a personal story of shame and pride, she adds a unique tone to this troubled family picture. David Margulies as the old family friend with the money the Fund needs to survive (they are working on an appeal for convicted cop-killer Mumia Abu-Jamal, still in prison and on death row) their way out of 1999 and into the twenty-first century is terrific. He barks at waiters, but coos to Emma. He is gentle, yet authoritative. Margulies does well by this man.
Elliot Vinar plays Miguel, Emmaís associate, or assistant depending on how he behaves, and also her lover. He is good in this role, playing neatly off of her strengths and weaknesses to create his own parallel sensibilities. It is his pushing off from their personal relationship that the play begins to feel like a play rather that as a slice-of-life experience. Emmaís sister is played by Meredith Holzman who brings a naturalistic attitude to the work helping to push it over from theater to "fly-on-walls" experience.
Itís a terrific, not to say genius, company.
The era, a decade gone now, is brought to vivid life by Clint Ramosís set and Kaye Voyceís costumes. Cantor has directed the product into a vivid reality on this intimately proportioned stage. She even provides us reasons to doubt reality when two homes are overlapped into a single set and two scenes are visible at the same time in the same space. It is believable and it works.
One of the finest new plays on our regional stages this season in a run that is all too short, this is one to catch. Even without an ending, as far as Iím concerned but you may not feel that way, it is a play that sparks conversation, forces thought and challenges convictions.
After the Revolution plays through August 1 on the Nikos Stage at the Williamstown Theatre Festival, located in the Ď62 Center for Theatre and Dance at 1000 Main Street, Williamstown, MA. For information and tickets call the box office at 518-597-3400.