Politics is the lifeblood of the Joseph clan, a fiery brood of New York leftists that must come to terms with its radical past in "After the Revolution."
Amy Herzog revisits the motifs she mined so memorably in the sublime "4000 Miles," which was also inspired by her own family history. She insightfully examines how families are shaped by the times in which they live, how one generation is often doomed to misjudge and betray another despite the love shared by all. The playwright also has a gift for fusing the personal and the political so that ideological battles seem as juicy as any bedroom farce.
While the central character here seems thinly drawn at times, there's no denying the thoughtful and bracing themes Herzog explores in this regional premiere at Berkeley's Aurora Theatre Company. Certainly it would be hard to match Joy Carlin's production for touching performances that capture the tenor of a rabble-rousing family that prizes discourse and debate far more highly than hugs and Hallmark cards.
Emma Joseph (Jessica Bates) is poised to carry the radical torch for her clan. Fresh out of law school, she heads a foundation to honor the legacy of her grandfather who was blacklisted during the McCarthy witch hunts. She fights for the rights of those persecuted for their beliefs, those she feels were railroaded by a judicial system that punishes the underdog. In essence she is fighting for those who walk in her grandfather's footsteps.
Alas, the more she learns about her ancestor, the less sure she is of who he was and why he did what he did.
Emma unravels when she realizes that her father Ben (Rolf Saxon) has been keeping secrets. Ben is a firebrand turned public schoolteacher. He's the sort of guy who is a tad disappointed that neither of his daughters turned out to be lesbian. His activism is his reason for being, and he will do whatever it takes to serve the cause.
While Emma's free fall into existential paralysis goes on for far too long, Herzog uses the time to touch on the way her decline shifts the family's balance of power. Suddenly the black sheep daughter Jess (a wry turn by Sarah Mitchell), who has battled addiction for years, becomes the silver lining child. Suddenly Emma is the lost and confused one, hiding out in her pajamas, ignoring the pleas of her boyfriend (Adrian Anchondo) and the needs of her clients (such as progressive cause celebre Mumia Abu-Jamal).
Bates captures the vulnerability and naiveté that lurk behind Emma's fortitude but the playwright spins her wheels too long while charting this awkward epiphany. In the end, the supporting characters, such as avuncular donor Morty (a wistful Peter Kybart) and Emma's flaky sister Jess end up seeming more richly idiosyncratic than the central figure.
However, Herzog vividly conjures the timeless allure of radicalism in a society marked by injustice. She also nails the fickleness of social convention. The heroes of one generation often become the monsters of the next.
That inevitable shift in perspective makes no sense to Emma's grandmother Vera (Ellen Ratner), a card-carrying Marxist whose story is the spine of "4000 Miles." She reveres the ideals of communism and civil disobedience, but she also secretly suspects most gay people are victims of sexual abuse.
Such heartbreaking contradictions are the genius of this drama, which doesn't flinch from the quirks and flaws that can make a family reunion as fractious as any political debate.
'AFTER THE REVOLUTION'
Written by Amy Herzog
Through: Sept. 29
Where: Aurora Theatre Company, 2081 Addison St. Berkeley
Running time: 2 hours (one intermission)
Tickets: $32-$50, 510-843-4822. www.auroratheatre.org.