The sins of the grandfather are visited on recent law school graduate Emma Joseph in Pulitzer Prize finalist Amy Herzog’s multigenerational family drama After The Revolution, now getting a compelling Oanh Nguyen-directed Chance Theater Southern California Premiere five years after putting its writer’s name on the national theatrical map.
Based on revelations surrounding Herzog’s real-life grandfather Julius Joseph, After The Revolution centers on Herzog stand-in Emma Joseph (an intense Marina Michelson), who learns just after her 1999 law school graduation that Grandpa Joe was something other than the noble, blacklisted left-winger who refused to name names when called before the McCarthy-era House Un-American Activities Committee.
The head of a social justice foundation named after the grandfather she believes the next best thing to a leftist saint, Emma has good reason to be proud of her outspokenly Marxist-American family’s deceased patriarch. Joe Joseph did, after all, stand up to the Senator from Wisconsin, refusing to provide the committee with a list of names when asked the infamous “Are you now or have you ever been a member of the Communist Party of the United States?”
Proud too are Emma’s uncle Leo (a spirited Corky Loupe), her stepmother Mel (Karen Webster, electric as always), and most especially her father Ben (a powerful Robert Foran), an unapologetically left-leaning high school history teacher.
Currently fighting alongside boyfriend Miguel (an effective Andrew Puente) to overturn the death penalty imposed on real-life African-American journalist Mumia Abu-Jamal, at least in part because of his onetime membership in the Black Panther Party, Emma is shocked when Ben and Leo inform her that a soon-to-be-published book outs her grandfather as a World War II Soviet Spy.
Not surprisingly this news rocks Emma’s world, a matter made even worse when she discovers that Dad revealed this information years ago to Emma’s oft-rehabbed older sister Jess (Camryn Zelinger, once again fabulous).
Not even the sage advice of Emma’s eighty-two-year-old grandmother Vera (a feisty Katherine McKalip) can smooth over the rift that develops between father and daughter, one that fuels After The Revolution’s gripping second act. (If Grandma and her oft-uttered “whadayacallit” sound familiar to avid SoCal theatergoers, it’s because an even older Vera stars in Herzog’s 4000 Miles.)
Completing After The Revolution’s fascinating cast of characters is wealthy septuagenarian fund donor Morty (a wry David Carl Golbeck), who’s got a hankering for Vera.
The Joseph family’s loud-and-proud Marxism alone makes them worthy of note, but Herzog insures that each has his or her own distinctive, often amusing quirks, Ben in particular. (If Emma has disappointed her father in any way, shape, or form, it’s in not having turned out lesbian, though her penchant for Latino men does kind of make up for that failing.) As for Grandma Vera, there are times when the outspoken octogenarian might do well to keep her thoughts to herself. (She doesn’t get why Emma doesn’t date nice Jewish boys, and try as she might, Emma can’t seem to disabuse Granny of the notion that gays turn gay because of sexual abuse, well “almost all of them,” Vera concedes.)
In other words, spending a couple of hours with the Josephs probably beats a night with one’s own dysfunctional folks, at least for variety’s sake.
Still, it’s After The Revolution’s weightier questions that give the play its meat. Is it fair for Emma to judge her grandfather in a contemporary context rather than a historical one? Is it right for her to blame Ben for withholding information that he knew would hurt her? Does it make sense for the Joe Joseph Foundation to continue to bear the name of a Soviet spy?
All of this makes After The Revolution heady viewing, and a play and production that carry on a grand Chance Theater tradition of challenging conservative Orange County with the edgiest shows in town.
Under Nguyen’s visually inspired direction, there’s some terrific work being done in the Chance’s year-and-a-half-old expanded space, and though scaled down seating-wise this time round to well under 99 seats, the larger theater offers scenic designer Bradley Kaye ample room to create a gorgeously conceived multi-domicile, multi-locale set.
In addition to Kaye’s marvelous set and Nguyen’s supremely imaginative use of it (scene changes in particular are a textbook example of ingenious direction), After The Revolution benefits from Martha Carter’s vivid yet subtle lighting design, Sara Ryung Clement’s just-right costumes, and Ryan Brodkin’s expert sound design with its jazzy, bluesy musical underscoring.
Meghan McCarthy is associate scenic designer. Bebe Herrera is stage manager. Sophie Cripe is dramaturg. Laurie Smits Staude is associate producer.
The final performances of After The Revolution’s mainstage run are set to coincide with the West Coast Premiere of Lauren Yee’s Samsara, debuting in the Chance’s brand-new adjoining intimate space in May, double proof that there’s no more exciting Orange County intimate theater (or company of actors) than Chance.
Chance Theater, 5522 E. La Palma Ave., Anaheim Hills.
April 22, 2105
Photos: Doug Catiller, True Image Studio