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Ben Joseph, the lead character in the Caldwell Theatre's After the Revolution, is a fascinating specimen. An academic, dyed-in-the-wool socialist with a pompous ponytail, Ben continues to raise his tattered red flag, spreading the people's gospel at a time when nobody wants to hear it. You see, After the Revolution is set in 1999, so Ben is a Marxist long after it was cool and years before it would become cool again. He's displeased with "pro-business" President Bill Clinton, and he mutters the kicker: "It's hard to imagine things getting much worse."
This is a self-aware, lazy joke obviously aimed at a 2011 audience still living the "much worse." It's a good thing it's the only line in playwright Amy Herzog's astonishing work that sounds at all telegraphed. The rest of her astute comedic drama exhibits profound insight into human behavior, and its mounting at the Caldwell is one of the best and most fulfilling stage productions of the year.
The plot hinges on a secret revealed shortly after the play begins. Ben's (Gordon McConnell) daughter Emma (Jackie Rivera), a law-school graduate carrying the torch of her family's social-justice activism, has pooled her time and resources into a nonprofit fund to free Mumia Abu-Jamal, the famous Black Panther and, many assert, a wrongly convicted cop killer. She has named the fund after her grandfather Joe, an inspirational liberal who refused to name names during the McCarthy hearings.
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But when a new book exposes Joe to have been a spy passing secrets to the Soviets during World War II, Ben is forced to come clean to his daughter about her grandfather's espionage, and it hits her like a sucker punch of betrayal. She's forced to reconcile this information with the idealized image of the patriotic American she's been praising for the past four years, and Emma has a crisis of political faith, refusing to take her father's desperate phone calls and shutting off completely from her work and boyfriend Miguel (Arturo Fernandez).
So who's "right" in all of this? Should the magnitude of the crimes be taken into consideration? How important is ideological purity? Herzog doesn't answer these questions, and After the Revolution is a better play for it. She's an inquisitive playwright, discovering new arguments and modes of thought with every scene change, offering an intellectual parry for every character's thrust.
Director Margaret Ledford paces the action beautifully, keeping every scene compelling and grounded, uncovering subtle nooks of humor and never succumbing to boisterous melodrama or preachy treacle. There isn't a weak link in the cast, though some stand out more than others. McConnell's performance is the embodiment of true beliefs and broken dreams, and Nancy Barnett — McConnell's real-life spouse — is a revelation as Ben's second wife, Mel. Her presence is warm, relatable, and poignantly authentic; she's not onstage nearly enough.
But this production's most genius touch — credit to Ledford and set designer Tim Bennett — is the towering, gleaming backdrop to the action. The story is set largely inside Ben and Mel's home, in front of three modern, imposing bookshelves equally stocked with family mementos and socialist agitprop. Images of Che, Marx, and Castro share wall space with family portraits, underlining the inextricable link between politics and family that consumes and divides the play's characters. It is his political beliefs, after all, that have guided Ben's every move, to the detriment of his loved ones. Herzog knows better than to tack on a happy resolution to this filial quagmire, but as a step in the right direction, Ben could relegate his political icons to the basement or, to reference one of his fellow card-carriers, to the ash heap of history.