Playwright Amy Herzog would like to remind us that the great debasing of American political discourse did not begin on Fox News, conservative talk radio, MSNBC or NPR.
Instead, it started decades earlier at the dinner table, in the living room or the car—places where adult discussions about the politics of the day might suddenly be interrupted by the voice of a small child. The conversation might pause as parents exchanged worried glances. A new and unanticipated dilemma had just arisen: What do we tell the children? And how?
It's a moment made for education and for propaganda. Obviously, we can cheat, fudge and cut convenient corners with the truth, and the kids won't know, for years, or ever. Such is the place where we begin the transfer of the greatness and the smallness of our vision of the world—our biases and dreams, our deepest fears and our ideals. In Herzog's view, it's also the place, for many, where one question is never entertained: "What is more important, for my children to echo my political beliefs, continue my political battles—or for them to be able to grow up and develop their own conclusions?"
In this strong production of Herzog's domestic and political drama, After the Revolution, the season-opener at Chapel Hill's Deep Dish Theater, we meet central character Emma some 20 years or so after that choice has been made—at least for the latest generation of the Joseph family. Emma's a newly minted law-school graduate about to embark on a career of high-level social activism. She'll be doing so at the helm of a legal defense fund named for her beloved grandfather, Joe, a man long lionized, in his family and in the public eye, for being blacklisted unjustly during the House Un-American Activities Committee hearings in the 1950s.
But Emma's ascension is marred by the publication of a book based on newly declassified information that reveals Joe actually was spying for the Soviets while they were still our allies. What's even more destabilizing for Emma is that her father, Ben, knew all along and chose to keep the truth from her.
Under Paul Frellick's discerning direction, Jess Jones' vivid, smart and nervy portrayal of Emma underlines the inevitable dilemma of raising any child to be a true believer—they have to keep believing, or there's hell to pay. By immediately cutting off all communications with Ben (a passionate Jack Prather, in the best work I've seen from him on stage) Emma employs a long-time family strategy used to deal with those whose politics don't pass muster. We know this from Patsy Clarke's razor-sharp interpretation of Vera, Emma's grandmother, Joe's wife—and a woman whose venerable and vinegary little old lady demeanor conceals an ice-cold eye for where family loyalties end and political loyalties begin. She's a true believer who never stopped believing—and a cautionary vision to us all.
Memorable supporting performances buttress this production. With her depth and reserve, Mara Thomas gives a nuanced, unassuming take on Jess, Emma's sister, convincingly portraying a recovering substance abuser who steps into a couple of unexpected family roles. For the role of Morty, an aging patrician leftist who wants to bankroll Emma's fund, an urbane and witty Rod Rich takes on a voice and manner as dry as the perfect martini. John Paul Middlesworth's solid, rueful Leo clearly knows his family's excesses, and tries to anchor the present situation as best he can. Susannah Hough gets to the heart of Mel, Emma's stepmother, and Omar Morales serves as Emma's boyfriend—and reality check—Miguel.
True, a tinge of soap accompanies the middle machinations of Herzog's script. Still, in asking what claims the past can make upon the present, After the Revolution shows what happens when the struggle with a problematic political legacy in a family is deferred—until it's possibly too late.