Introducing its wide-ranging audience members to the work of a talented young playwright on the rise, Baltimore’s Centerstage premiered the “Amy Herzog Festival”: the first time Herzog’s After the Revolution and 4,000 Miles have ever been produced together with the plays alternating every two weeks.
Poignantly penned by Amy Herzog, one of America’s pioneering contemporary playwrights, comes two semi-autobiographical tales that span three generations of a colorful, ultra-leftist family. In After the Revolution, Emma has learned a scandalous revelation about her late grandfather. Struggling with shaken moral and political views, Emma confronts her grandmother Vera for the truth. A decade later, Vera steers the lime light in 4000 Miles, winner of 2012 Obie Award Best New American Play and a Pulitzer Prize nomination. Coping with a shocking loss, Vera’s 21 year-old grandson Leo stumbles through the door of her West Village apartment. Over the course of a single month, these unlikely roommates frustrate, bewilder, and—eventually—connect, as they search for common understanding.
“I am completely delighted that the plays will be seen together for the first time. There are resonances between them that are usually lost,” Herzog said. “Since I wrote these plays based on my extended family and especially my grandmother, I’ve had two major life changes. My grandmother died in 2013 at age 96, and I had two children. My grandmother’s death changed my feeling about the plays very much; now they seem to have the quality of a eulogy or remembrance, which they didn’t when I wrote them.”
Under the dexterous direction of Princess Grace Award honoree Lila Neugebauer, who is also a close friend of Herzog’s, After the Revolution explores personal, political and multi-generational issues encountered by Emma (resolutely played by Ashton Heyl), a recent law school graduate who has established and heads a fund named after her radical grandfather, Joe Joseph. Supported by far leftists who were close to her family, the fund is dedicated to address and correct what it deems to be social wrongs, including the support of award-winning local reporter, activist and former Black Panther member, Mumia Abu-Jamal’s appeal of his death sentence. Impressively, Emma’s non-profit is financially secure enough to employ her boyfriend, Miguel (collectedly played by Alejandro Rodriguez). Her dad, Ben (Arye Gross) is elated that Emma has a Latino beau, but he would even more thrilled if she were a lesbian.
Emma’s world is abruptly turned upside down when she learns that her grandfather was not just the voracious, revolutionary leftie she fancied him to be, but more specifically, he was a spy for the Soviet Union during World War II, a material fact that each of Emma’s family members determinedly omitted to ever disclose to her before.
Centered and filtered from Emma’s point of view, Heyl maintains a continuously solid stage presence throughout each progression of the production, cohesively and fluidly pacing each scene on the sparse, but proficiently utilized set designed by Daniel Zimmerman, accessorized with a mass concentrations of family photographs and books adorning its prominently white canvas.
On the whole, each cast member skillfully and whole-heartedly embraced each role, particularly Peter Van Wagner who played a delightfully endearing, sincere and sentimental Morty, the play’s voice of kindheartedness, compassion, forgiveness and understanding of a complicated era when many leftists feared for their lives. Likewise, Lois Markle’s Vera, Emma’s grandmother (who is based on Herzog’s own grandmother, Leppe Joseph), is refreshingly dynamic, spunky and compelling. “I’m not a rah-rah American,” Vera proclaims with stern conviction and pride.
Kelly McCrann as Jess, Emma’s fresh out-of-rehab sister, channels Winona Ryder with her retro-90s appearance and comically well-timed gestures, glances and mannerisms. Rounding out the ensemble, Susan Rome rendered a warm and earnest Mel, Emma’s stepmother and Mark Zeisler toggled nicely as a cool and fiery Leo, Emma’s uncle.
Heady and hearty, Centerstage’s After the Revolution, though largely an autobiographical family saga with searing historical retrospectives, weaves a universally-identifiable tapestry of tribulations that are readily familiar and personal to any theatergoer who is defined or haunted by a legacy that one may be chosen to repeat, omit, or eliminate.
Running Time: Approximately 2 hours and 10 minutes with one 15-minute intermission.