It's almost quaint to see smart and passionate politically-minded people talking in 1999 about how the new century and the end of the Cold War would re-orient America back toward issues of civil liberties and racial equality. Unfortunately, a couple of buildings soon toppled, we had a new enemy and, 16 years later, the Patriot Act is still in force and you apparently can't lob a loogie in this country without it hitting some cop killing a black guy.
Amy Herzog's play, After the Revolution, is set in 1999 but was written in 2010. So while her characters talk about the future, we are living in it, and that hindsight casts a sad haze over the optimism expressed by several of the characters, most of them unapologetic progressives, if not not downright Marxists, who fervently believe that the tide has turned against reactionism and stifling dissent.
But while the play exists in its present, and our present, it's just as much about the past, particularly The Second Red Scare and McCarthyism. The play revolves around the legacy of Grandpa Joe (who is never seen), whose once promising career was destroyed after he refused to cooperate with a Congressional investigation into suspected communists working for the government. His son Ben (Robert Foran) has inherited his father's radicalism and passed it onto his daughter, Emma (Marina Michelson), who has created a foundation in her grandfather's name devoted to social justice. Her first cause: Mumia Abu-Jamal, a member of the Black Panther Party who was convicted of shooting a Philadelphia police officer and sentenced to death. Convinced Abu-Jamal did not receive a fair trial, Emma, a star law student who has just graduated, is the public face of an organization named for her grandfather, something her family finds immense pride in.
But, as these things so often happen in plays, there are some skeletons rattling in the family closet and when some unsavory truths about her grandfather's life come to light, Emma is devastated and the family becomes unraveled.
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The play is as much a deeply intimate exploration of family as it is the peculiarly American obsession with censoring progressive voices (see David Horowitz, Ward Churchill and this HBO documentary for some textbook examples). Herzog's play is smart, moving and a tense, provocative examination of big social and historical issues, as well as one family attempting to hold together amid generational and political conflict.
Director Oanh Nguyen and his solid ensemble (which includes Karen Webster as Emma's step-mother, Corky Loupe as her uncle Leo, Katherine McKalip as her unapologetic grandmother, Andrew Puente as her partner Miguel, and David Carl Golbeck and Camryn Zelinger in scene-stealing portrayals of a wealthy donor to her foundation, and her sister, respectively) cover all the bases in this sharp production. It's as entertaining as it is intense, and it deftly captures the emotional currents pulsating beneath the politics, and is the kind of play that will stick to your synapses long after you've exited the space.
Herzog is one of the brightest and most politically attuned of American playwrights, and this play, and this production, is a stirring exemplification of her talent.
Chance Theater, 5522 E. La Palma Ave., Anaheim Hills, (714) 777-3033. Fri., 8 p.m.; Sat., 3 & 8 p.m. Sun., 2 p.m. Thru May 10. $25-$35. www.chancetheater.com.