A family legacy of political idealism is undermined by secrets and betrayals in "After the Revolution." Amy Herzog's dense and gripping family drama, which opened Aurora Theatre's 22nd season last week, sends the actions of its elders reverberating through three generations of a progressive dynasty.
It is 1994 and Emma Joseph (a lithe, eloquent Jessica Bates) is a young lawyer fully committed to left-wing causes. How could it be otherwise? Her father, Ben (an expansive Rolf Saxon), is a lifelong Marxist who teaches history and social justice.
But her chief role model is her late grandfather Joe Joseph, whose government career ended when he was blacklisted during the McCarthy era. Although Emma hardly knew him, he's her hero, her guiding light and the namesake of the legal fund she's established to battle social injustice.
Just as she's tackling her first high-profile case -- that of Mumia Abu-Jamal, the former Black Panther activist convicted of murder in a controversial 1982 trial -- Emma receives shocking news. A recently published book names Joe as a spy, one who passed U.S. secrets to the Soviet Union in the 1940s. For Emma, even more devastating is the revelation that Ben knew and kept it a secret from her.
As Emma struggles to reconcile the mythical Joe with this new information, the family unravels. Her politically ambivalent Uncle Leo (a mild-mannered Victor Talmadge) and Ben's partner, Mel (a charmingly down-to-earth Pamela Gaye Walker), attempt reconciliation, while Emma's bad-girl sister, Jess (a tart Sarah Mitchell) offers wry solace.
Emma's co-worker and boyfriend, Miguel (a smooth Adrian Anchondo) urges her to get a grip, while a wealthy donor to the fund (Peter Kybart as the avuncular Morty) shrugs it off.
Only Joe's widow, Vera (the excellent Ellen Ratner, in a richly layered comic performance), is unwavering in her support for Joe -- and forceful in her insistence that Emma keep the faith.
Director Joy Carlin delivers a brilliant production on J.B. Wilson's accommodating set, eliciting sharp, emotionally engaged performances from the cast and enforcing a propulsive pace, even when Herzog's text is at its most verbose.
The production builds to something more complex than domestic drama and more engaging than a history lesson.
In the end, "After the Revolution" is a rare achievement -- taut and suspenseful, with plenty of heart.
After the Revolution
Presented by Aurora Theatre Co.
Where: Aurora Theatre Co, 2081 Addison St., Berkeley
When: 7 p.m. Tuesdays, 8 p.m. Wednesdays-Saturdays, 2 and 7 p.m. most Sundays; extended through Oct. 6
Tickets: $32to $50
Contact: (510) 843-4822, www.auroratheatre.org