Family activism can be so awkward, can't it?

THEATER REVIEW: "After the Revolution" at Next Theatre in Evanston ★★★★

 Christine Stulik and Mike Nussbaum at the Noyes Cultural Arts Center.

Christine Stulik and Mike Nussbaum at the Noyes Cultural Arts Center. (April 11, 2012)

"Those people could be my neighbors," I heard one woman remark at the conclusion of "After the Revolution," the current production at the Next Theatre in Evanston. Actually, Amy Herzog's impressive 2010 play is set in Greenwich Village, where, to paraphrase one of her characters, you could not walk down a street in the 1940s without running into a communist sympathizer.

But in director Kimberly Senior's fine production of a play about the perils of being a child of an ultra-leftist family, Keith Pitts' set also makes subtle reference to the Arts and Crafts homes occupied by the lakefront liberals of Evanston, Rogers Park and thereabouts. And those who grew up in such book-filled homes, paid for with the fruits of teaching or writing, those of the same generation as the playwright, will doubtless sympathize with Herzog's central character of Emma, a radically tutored young woman who finds out that progressives can be shrill, prejudiced, judgmental, elitist, morally compromised and otherwise disappointing.

Or so they can seem when they are your loving relatives.

Of course, family members of all political stripes are disappointing in some ways, a point that Herzog is careful to make, just as she notes that most of our crucial and most loving relationships come with constant twinges of sadness. Her work is as wise about parenting as it is about being parented. "After the Revolution" is about the need to make your own way in the world, regardless of what those who came before you did or did not do. But it's also about the difficulty of recognizing moral culpability from a distance of time, without the necessary context to understand why someone made a certain choice in a very different era.

For Next Theatre, which has had a very up-and-down season, this is, finally, a moving and thoroughly engrossing show that is certain to land with its core audience.

The setup here is that Emma (solidly played by young Christine Stulik), a recent graduate of a prestigious law school, is already running a fund named after her radical grandfather. This fund, supported in part by old lefties who knew her family, is dedicated to righting social wrongs, such as funding the appeal of an outspoken African-American radical who perhaps did not get a fair trial. Emma's non-profit is already big enough to employ her boyfriend, Miguel (Marvin Quijada). Her dad Ben (Mick Weber) is delighted she's dating a Latino guy. (He'd be even more delighted, she feels, if she were a lesbian.) But she still keeps the two men away from each other, lest her dad start speaking in Spanish.

Emma's little world is upended when she finds out that her grandfather wasn't just the courageous old lefty she knew him to be, but a spy for the Soviet Union during World War II, a little biographical nugget that those in her family have failed to tell her all these years, even though they all knew, to varying degrees. And so the play's heroine is faced with dilemmas: Can she still go out and raise money for a fund named for a spy? Can she understand what her grandfather did and why? And, most importantly, can she still deal with her family?

Senior stages this play very much from Emma's point of view, using Stulik, who has a very viable naivete, as a constant stage presence during transitions, and allowing her confusion to function as the glue that holds the production together. That approach might not be for all tastes, but it matches the intent of the play and it's a deft way to keep the multi-scene show moving on Next's small stage.

But Senior's great strength is her casting, here on vivid and often thrilling display, especially in regards to Mike Nussbaum and MaryAnn Thebus, the sweet and sour of veteran Chicago actors.

Nussbaum plays, with typical sincerity, the sentimental Morty, the play's voice of compassion and forgiveness of an era when many on the left feared for their lives. Thebus plays Vera, Emma's grandmother. This compelling character is based on Herzog's own grandmother, Leppe Joseph, and she also shows up in Herzog's newest acclaimed play, "4000 Miles," which is yet to be seen in Chicago. Thebus is unstinting in the expression of her disappointment with her granddaughter, who comes to see the dark side of having a job that inextricably links you to your family and whose legacy you thus carry forward. Thebus turns in a fine piece of acting: harsh, cold and yet inherently loving and even, where necessary, uncertain and vulnerable.

Those scenes are fine indeed, but then so are the moments between Stulik's Emma and her troubled sister Jess (beautifully and delicately played by Dana Black), a wise young woman who, after a long internal fight, has come to see that there are things in life that matter more than political action. Black's Jess embodies another issue that aging liberals who find their way to this show will also recognize: What do you do when your kids aren't liberal —  them being conservative, most liberal parents tell themselves, can be handled — but have no discernible causes whatsoever?

Is that not the ultimate repudiation of all for which you have stood?

Those little insights into the aching complexities of life are what make this show special: Weber understands that his Ben, first and foremost, does not want to be one of those divorced fathers who lets his kids down. That trumps Karl Marx, whether he likes it or not.

The fate of old Marxists and the collapse of the left is interesting — Tom Stoppard probed much the same theme on the other side of the Atlantic in "Rock 'N' Roll" — but Herzog's American story also has one foot in the world of the late, great Wendy Wasserstein, who understood that a childhood of privilege, even intellectual privilege, is no guarantee of moral ease, success or adult happiness.

cjones5@tribune.com

Twitter@ChrisJonesTrib

When: Through May 13

Where: Next Theatre Company, Noyes Cultural Arts Center, 927 Noyes St., Evanston;

Running time: 2 hours, 15 mins.

Tickets: $25-$40 at 847-475-1875 and nexttheatre.org

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