'After the Revolution'

A smart, funny, provocative play about three generations of leftist activists in a new world order.

Amy Herzog’s “After the Revolution is a smart, funny and provocative play about three generations of leftist political activists in a new world order. It will have auds talking not only about the obvious issues it raises of persecution, responsibility and idealism, but also its compelling and complex characters and the choices they face. Herzog deftly avoids simple-minded polemics in favor of richly detailed people who are as ready to examine their relationships as they are their consciences.

The world preem at WTF’s second stage in the Massachusetts Berkshires will be followed with a Gotham bow later this season at Playwrights Horizons, and the play is already in splendid shape. This terrific production, featuring a dream ensemble, is guided with an expert hand by helmer Carolyn Cantor, who pays special attention to the sighs and pokes of family life and strife.

A family gathering to celebrate the law school graduation of its youngest leftie, Emma (Katharine Powell), is disturbed with the news of a forthcoming book that reveals the tribe’s late grandfather — a famous victim of the blacklist — to be other than the innocent many believe him to be. A shattered Emma, who heads the advocacy foundation named after her grandfather, must now decide how to proceed, much to the dismay of her Marxist father, Ben (Peter Friedman), and her tough-minded, hard-of-hearing grandmother Vera (Lois Smith). The family’s mantra to “question authority” never applied to them, says Emma, as she begins her re-examination of their politics.

More sympathetic to Emma’s dilemma is her grounded stepmom, Mel (Mare Winningham); an apolitical sister, Jess (Meredith Holzman); and Uncle Leo (Mark Blum), who feels guilty for his own complacent political life.

Complicating Jess’ world is boyfriend Miguel (Elliot Villar), a co-founder of the foundation that’s trying to save a prisoner on death row, and Morty (David Margulies), an elderly rich donor who worshipped her grandpa Joe.

The question, “Which side are you on?” has multiple meanings here, from patriotism and family loyalty to political beliefs, and as written by Herzog with an extraordinary balance of insight, humor and surprise, it’s totally engaging.

The cast couldn’t be better. Smith gives a flinty gravitas and bite to the role of the Marxist matriarch. Winningham has a Midwest zen as the stepmom with family issues of her own. Holzman is a cool delight as the in-recovery sibling who discovers that she is now the family’s “good sister.” Margulies is a master of seen-it-all insight, with just the right comic playfulness. And Villar, spot-on as Emma’s partner in life and love, embodies the voice of a new generation of political thinking.

But it’s the human tug-of-war between father and daughter that’s the heart of the piece, with Powell’s hard-driving Emma a chip off her father’s rigorous righteousness. Powell is also wonderfully heartbreaking and maddening as she struggles to find an emotional center as her political world and family relationships fall apart.

Friedman brings humor and self-awareness to the radically committed character of Emma’s father. Just watch as he reacts to the news that his ideal daughter secretly smokes, and you understand that it’s often harder to change a child than society.

After the Revolution

Nikos Theater, Williamstown, Mass.; 173 seats, $37 top

Production

A Williamstown Theater Festival presentation of a play in two acts by Amy Herzog. Directed by Carolyn Cantor.

Creative

Sets, Clint Ramos; costumes, Kaye Voyce; lighting, Ben Stanton; sound and composition, Fitz Patton; production stage manager, Hannah Cohen; production manager, Joel M. Krause. Opened July 22, 2010. Reviewed July 23. Runs through Aug. 1. Running time: 2 HOURS.

Cast

Emma - Katharine Powell Ben - Peter Friedman Vera - Lois Smith Morty - David Margulies Jess - Meredith Holzman Leo - Mark Blum Mel - Mare Winningham Miguel - Elliot Villar Waiter - Will Crouse

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