Aurora Theatre play stages emotional revolution

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When a dark secret reveals a heart-wrenching detail of the surreptitious past of her beloved grandfather, Emma is forced to investigate every other familial relationship by which she deeply defines her profession and self. Under the direction of Joy Carlin, a well-selected Aurora Theatre cast successfully renders Amy Herzog’s “After the Revolution” (2010) an intimately honest production, poignantly relatable and perennial.

At first glance, “After the Revolution” may be considered narratively simplistic: Emma, a lawyer who fights wrongful persecution in memory of her late grandfather whom she had believed to be wrongfully blacklisted, is traumatized to learn that her grandfather participated in espionage during World War II. After the delivery of this news very early on in the production, little else happens in terms of narrative or action, placing substantial pressure on the cast to present the emotional transformations within and between the characters in a compelling way.

As the action fades and emotional understanding comes to the forefront, a sense of movement is created between the scenes through a well-calculated use of space. A platform at one end of the stage represents Emma’s father’s home, which is made to feel increasingly distant as Emma and her father’s relationship worsens; the lighting on the stage progressively lessens, finally placing Emma in a spotlight at one end of the stage and her father in a dimmer light at the other, with darkness between them.

Furthermore, while the first scene takes place on the entire ground level of the stage, each scene thereafter is confined to one of four corners. This choice concentrates attention on the emotional specificity of each scene (usually between only two of the six characters) and perhaps also on Emma’s own feeling of being “cornered” by the rupture of her career.

Critical journalism on “After the Revolution” and Herzog herself attest to similarities between Herzog’s family and the characters and relationships presented through the course of the production. While the script gains depth from its autobiographical nature, the Aurora Theatre cast successfully makes very close, complicated relationships relatable.

In this context, the commendable work of Rolf Saxon (Ben, Emma’s father) comes to mind. The extensive history of care and support behind the relationship between Emma and her father is beautifully expressed through Saxon’s multifaceted performance. His character is, at certain moments, the grounded, mastering presence taking over the theater and, at others, a fragile shadow of his former self.

It would be difficult to watch such a performance without applying such strong feelings of pride, comfort, loss and guilt to one’s own life and relationships. Performances like Saxon’s, as well as those of much of the rest of the cast, make such intimate, emotional material available and identifiable.

Written in 2010, this production deals with historical events of the 1940s — Emma’s grandfather and World War II — and the 1980s; Emma’s legal client, Mumia Abu-Jamal, was accused of shooting a police officer in 1981 and faced 30 years on death row.

One of the most vivid portrayals of the constant relevancy and interaction of history with the present is the inclusion of Emma’s younger sister Jess (Sarah Mitchell) and her grandmother Vera (Ella Ratner). Both Mitchell and Ratner create breaths of comic relief that are representative of innocence or wisdom; Mitchell rolls her eyes and often retains a relaxed, disconnected aura, while Ratner walks slowly but steadily, always listening closely and critically. Mitchell and Ratner create a sense of youth and age that work together to guide and critique Emma as she makes decisions about how to proceed personally and professionally.

Berkeley’s Aurora Theatre presents Amy Herzog’s “After the Revolution” as a piece of intimacy and availability, history and relevance — a two-hour investigation of the vulnerability and strength of familial relationships.