What ever happened to activism?
What ever happened to personal sacrifice?
What ever happened to guts?
If Amy Herzog's compelling play "After the Revolution" is any indication, these vestiges of the militant American left have just been taking an extra-long nap. To reawaken, she seems to suggest, they may require a constitutional crisis.
To hear the characters in this play tell it, the ongoing atrophy of leftist gumption began sometime around the communist witch-hunts of the 1950s. And it continued through the Clinton era, the tail end of which provides the backdrop for this compelling political rumination disguised as a family drama.
The action centers on a family of committed but weary American Marxists, whose idealism has been slowly ground down over the decades by the numbing reverberations of Sen. Joseph McCarthy's terrifying crusade.
It is impossible for Western New Yorkers to view this play without thinking about the experiences of our own outspoken members of McCarthy's blacklist: The labor leader and playwright Manny Fried and the photographer Milton Rogovin. Their experience informs every breath of this production and gives us a context through which to understand the play's examination of a landscape and legacy with no simple answers.
At the helm of the family is the sensitive high school social justice teacher Ben (David Marciniak), a man whose uncritical commitment to the Marxist movement has morphed him into a liberal caricature. In transferring his unwavering commitment to the Marxist ideal down to his daughters (Bonnie Jean Taylor and Anne Roaldi Boucher), he has committed a series of moral misdeeds that come back to bite him just in time for the opening scene.
The main dilemma has to do with the family's late and lionized patriarch, who was dragged before the House Un-American Activities Committee in the 1950s and promptly blacklisted for his refusal to answer their questions. During time as a Communist Party stalwart, the characters come to learn, he made a few moral compromises of his own.
Young Emma (Taylor), a social justice warrior who has built her career on a naive notion about her grandfather's steadfast honesty, has a difficult time stomaching this revelation. The bulk of the drama concerns her attempts to come to terms with it, which she does with clean fury in a scene with Marciniak that on its own is more than enough reason to buy a ticket to this production immediately.
It all unfolds with consummate grace under Saul Elkin's direction on a massive, rotating set designed with consummate attention to detail by David Dwyer.
The play's biggest flaw is that it thrusts too much of the dramatic weight on Emma's shoulders, which has the dual effect of making her exhibitions of moral rectitude overbearing and turning some of the other characters into ciphers. This balances out in the second act, when Ben has a riveting argument with his brother (Steve Vaughan) and Lisa Ludwig (Ben's second wife and a fellow traveler in the movement) delivers a moving phone call to Emma about the downsides of filial devotion.
The play also features a touching heart-to-heart between Emma and her sister (Boucher), just out of rehab, and a charming performance from local sound designer Tom Makar as a wise patron who lived through the McCarthy era.
A remarkably strong performance also comes from Tina Rausa, who plays Emma's stalwart grandmother Vera and whose commitment to the movement can be read either as an exhibition of ancient backbone or a fatal flaw.
"I look at people your age, at your cousins, and I don't know what they're for," a disappointed Vera tells her granddaughter in the play's devastating final scene. "I don't know how they're going to feel when they get to be my age. When they look back and see how they spent their time. I look back, and I feel proud."
If pride were the only concern, Vera might have a point. But Herzog, in her refusal to give us easy answers and happy endings, sets the stakes much higher.
"After the Revolution," a drama by Amy Herzog produced by the Jewish Repertory Theatre of Western New York, runs through March 5 in the Maxine and Robert Seller Theatre in the Jewish Community Center (2640 North Forest Road, Getzville). Tickets are $10 to $38. Call 688-4114, ext. 391 or visit jewishrepertorytheatre.com.