Personal is political in Aurora’s fiery Revolution

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Rolf Saxon is Ben Joseph and Jessica Bates is Emma Joseph in Aurora Theatre Company’s production of After the Revolution by Amy Herzog and directed by Joy Carlin. Below: Bates’ Emma is comforted by Adrian Anchondo’s Miguel. Photos by David Allen

Berkeley’s Aurora Theatre Company opens its 22nd season with Amy Herzog’s smart, moving drama After the Revolution, an ambitious play that juggles American history, the cost of political idealism and how one generation affects another – for good and ill – in a tight-knit family.

This is the same Herzog whose 4000 Miles was so good at American Conservatory Theater earlier this year (read my review here), and this play, which predates 4000 Miles, also features the character of Vera Joseph (who is based on Herzog’s own grandmother). Vera is the widow of Joe Joseph, a member of the Communist party and a blacklisted victim of the McCarthy witch hunts in the 1950s, and though she’s younger in this play (by about a decade), she’s just as irascible – a crusty, Leftie granny with lots of bite left in her.

But Vera isn’t the focus here. The spotlight belongs to Vera’s granddaughter, Emma Joseph (Jessica Bates), a brilliant, recently graduated lawyer who runs the Joe Joseph Fund, a nonprofit aiming to release Mumia Abu-Jamal, the former Black Panther who was given the death sentence for the murder of a Philadelphia policeman. The year is 1999 (before Mumia’s sentence was commuted to life in prison), and Emma and her group feel that Mumia, because of his outspoken political views and the fact that he’s black, led to a farce of a trial and an overly harsh, even racist sentence. In other words, Emma feels she is carrying on her grandfather’s legacy by not giving in to governmental abuse of power.

Emma is the pride and joy of her family. Her dad, Ben (Rolf Saxon) can barely contain the tears when he toasts his daughter, who is so proudly carrying the banner for the family’s history and politics. Ben’s brother, Leo (Victor Talmadge) is equally proud and somewhat chagrined that his own three children, whom he calls “jocks,” don’t care at all about politics, blacklists or Communists. And then there’s Vera (Ellen Ratner), who is disappointed that all of her grandchildren, except Emma, have so little political intelligence or ambition.

When a deep, dark secret from decades past emerges, as such secrets often do, the Joseph family splinters. Emma suffers the most from the news, and everyone is left to deal with her implosion. It seems Joe wasn’t exactly the stand-up-and-fight-the-power Commie Emma thought he was. He was the “share government secrets with the Soviets during World War II” kind of Commie, and to Emma, that is dishonest and dishonorable. Vera sees it differently, that Joe was working for Stalin, in whom he believed more than Roosevelt, and it was before we knew everything we later knew about what Stalin was actually doing in Russia.

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Whatever, this revelation makes Emma question everything about her choices in life, especially the work she’s doing in her grandfather’s name. The revelation also threatens to destroy Emma’s relationship with her father, whom she revered as an inspiring Marxist public school teacher. Not a liar who kept vital information from her and arguably let her take money from donors to the Fund under somewhat false pretenses.

When it comes right down it, After the Revolution is really a father-daughter drama, and a bracingly good one. As Emma retreats from the world and wallows in self-pity and seems incapable of showing any shred of compassion for anyone (especially her father), Ben keeps trying to reach out to her and heal their rupture. The scene when they finally do meet, each prepared as if for a lecture demonstration, is alive with humor, regret, deep sadness and even deeper love. It’s a marvelous scene, beautifully played by Bates and Saxon. We never doubt Ben’s love for his daughter or his torment over not sharing the truth about his father sooner. But the scene allows Bates’ Emma to show that she has grown and expanded as a human, that she is capable of compassion.

Perhaps because that scene is so emotionally rich and rewarding, it’s disappointing, then, that the play shifts attention away from Emma, who is the protagonist, and to Vera, who is but a key supporting player. Vera makes an important point about Emma’s choices as they relate to her grandfather, but the play suffers from the shift in focus.

Director Joy Carlin navigates these tricky dramatic waters with aplomb and sensitivity. Politics are important here, but they never overtake the emotional lives and connections of the characters. The excellent supporting cast includes Adrian Anchondo as Emma’s boyfriend, who also works at the Fund; Pamela Gaye Walker as Ben’s wife (who has one of the play’s best scenes in a late-night phone call to a suffering Emma); Peter Kybart as a wise (and loaded) donor to Emma’s Fund; and Sarah Mitchell as Emma’s sister, who is fresh from another round of rehab.

Herzog creates a broad canvas here that allows money, history, truth and family to ratchet up the stakes and provide the ultimate reward. After the Revolution
isn’t exactly revolutionary, but as a family drama it surges with power and heart.

[bonus interview]

I talked to After the Revolution director Joy Carlin for a story in the San Francisco Chronicle. Read the feature here.


Amy Herzog’s After the Revolution continues an extended run through Oct. 6 at Aurora Theatre Company, 2081 Addison St., San Francisco. Tickets are $32-$50. Call 510-843-4822 or visit

ACT’s 4000 Miles a journey worth taking

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Reggie Gowland is Leo Joseph-Connell and Susan Blommaert is Vera Joseph, his grandmother, in Amy Herzog’s 4000 Miles now at American Conservatory Theater’s Geary Theater. Below: Gowland’s Leo wrangles over matters of the heart with Julia Lawler as Bec. Photos by Kevin Berne.

How do you make a hug between grandmother and grandson a high point of a play without making it corny or sentimental? That’s the trick playwright Amy Herzog and director Mark Rucker pull off in the compelling drama 4000 Miles now at American Conservatory Theater’s Geary Theater.

The moment comes fairly early in this 90-minute one-act after 21-year-old Leo (Reggie Gowland) has surprised his 91-year-old grandmother, Vera (Susan Blommaert) by showing up in the middle of the night after completing a cross-country bicycle trip from Seattle to Manhattan.

There’s a lot they need to talk about, like why Leo disappeared for months after his bicycle trip with his best friend Micah went horribly awry or why stubborn Vera doesn’t reach out for help as often as she should as she navigates old age with mixed success. But first these two just need to connect.

She’s an old Leftie, a card-carrying Communist whose second husband wrote books about Cuba. He’s a vaguely New Age hippie. Neither of them is as well versed in their manifestos as they should be, but they both live with the conviction of true believers. Theirs isn’t so much a cultural or generational clash as it is a bumpy reunion of like minds and hearts.

The hug comes when Vera is upset but doesn’t readily take comfort from the rare warm body in her Greenwich Village apartment. The raggedy, bushy-haired Leo, who towers over his grandmother, opens his arms and says, almost jokingly, “How about a hug from a hippie?” Vera, in her slightly doddering way, waves him away. Then she re-thinks the option, turns around and falls into her grandson’s arms. They both seem a little surprised by how much the hug ends up meaning.

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The fact is, these two find each other when they most need each other. Theirs is not a stereotypical clash of the older and younger generations, with each railing against the other’s foreign ways and then coming to a begrudging, ultimately loving understanding by the final curtain. These two love each other from the start. Their ways are rather foreign, but they also have a great deal in common.

The real pleasure of Herzog’s script and Rucker’s sensitive production is that it feels real. The rhythms aren’t theatrical. Some scenes are long, others are quite short. And that’s a difficult thing to pull off in the giant Geary.

Set designer Erik Flatmo has created a strikingly lifelike apartment with the focus on the living room (where there’s a working rotary dial phone to give you an idea of the design sense), although the size of the stage allows glimpses into the kitchen, Vera’s room and the hallway outside the apartment’s front door.

In spite of the finely detailed set, the sheer size of the theater swallows up some of the naturalism. Nuances, both vocal and physical, tend to get lost, and some of the scenes, especially the quiet ones like Leo’s soliloquy about his bike trip, don’t connect in the way they should

The performances are lovely, though. Blommaert’s Vera conveys a believable tussle with the horrors of aging, like not being able to remember words, the luxury to say whatever is on your mind (even if it involves telling your grandson that he sounds stupid) and the, in her words, “disgusting” physical deterioration that accompanies her advancing years. Vera gets a lot of laughs, but they are not in any way “Golden Girls” laughs. This is a smart, political woman who doesn’t put up with a lot of nonsense, and Blommaert is sharp and compassionate in the role.

Gowland’s Reggie is just as believable at the opposite end of the aging spectrum. He’s 21 going on 16. We see him interacting with two women, his girlfriend Bec (Julia Lawler) and an art student he brought home for a fling (Camille Mana). In his dealings with these two very different women, we see that he’s honest and sincere (almost to a fault) but immature. He’s been through a rough time, but it’s time for him to stop behaving like a teenager and step up to manhood. Gowland is loveable but he has some sharp edges, which is good.

4000 Miles is, in the end, a story of transitions, of family members being there for one another to help, not in a sappy way but more of a being there and listening way. Vera and Leo are better for having spent some time together, both ready to add a few more miles onto their respective journeys.

[bonus interview]
I talked to playwright Amy Herzog for a feature in the San Francisco Chronicle. Read the story here.

Amy Herzog’s 4000 Miles continues through Feb. 10 at American Conservatory Theater’s Geary Theater, 415 Geary St., San Francisco. Tickets are $20-$105 (subject to change). Call 415-749-2228 or visit