Lois Smith and Katharine Powell
in After the Revolution
(© Joan Marcus)
Lois Smith and Katharine Powell
in After the Revolution
(© Joan Marcus)
A young woman attempts to make sense of her present and plan for the future all the while confronting the past in Amy Herzog's thoughtful After the Revolution, playing at Playwrights Horizons. The work shines in large part, because Carolyn Cantor's sensitively directed production is filled with a host of exceptional performances, which often mitigate some of the excesses in the piece's overly convenient plotting.

Theatergoers first meet the Joseph clan as they wait for daughter Emma (Katharine Powell) after her law school graduation in the spring of 1999. Her dad Ben (Peter Friedman) and stepmom Mel (Mare Winningham) are talking a mile a minute -- director Cantor beautifully orchestrates Herzog's overlapping dialogue -- about his recent outburst at a school function and Emma's forceful graduation speech.

Ben, a died-in-the-wool Marxist, and Emma are carrying on the family legacy, which is embodied by his late father, Joe, who was blacklisted after refusing to name names before the House Un-American Activities Committee. Indeed, Emma is so enamored of her grandfather's actions that she's established a legal aid fund that bears his name.

Her work has garnered considerable notice, and Morty (David Margulies), an old acquaintance of Joe's, has decided to name the fund his sole beneficiary in his will. Unfortunately, there are details about what Joe did in the 1950s that Emma has not been told threatening not only the credibility of the fund but also Emma's worldview as a whole.

Herzog's ability to parallel themes -- such as the dual natures of Morty's legacy to his kids versus her family's to her -- is unquestionably impressive and always intriguing, but there are times when her work is almost too literary. Audiences can sense what's coming next. Similarly, the ways in which the playwright reveals certain details often feels contrived, particularly when it comes to information that Emma gleans from her sister Jess (played with a grand no-nonsense edge by Meredith Holzman).

At the center of the production is Powell's winning performance as the complex and confused Emma. The actress cannot only seemingly glow with righteous zeal as she describes her work, she can also simmer with deep emotion as she struggles with the conundrums presented by what she has learned about her grandfather.

As for the remainder of the cast; Friedman gives a strongly nuanced performance as Ben; Margulies is exemplary as the wry and randy Morty, often getting some of the production's heartiest laughs; Lois Smith seems luminescent in her gloriously understated turn as Emma's grandmother; Winningham delivers a beautifully modulated turn as Mel; and fine work also comes from Mark Blum as Ben's brother and Elliot Villar as Emma's Latino boyfriend, whose race poses yet another set of issues for the family and the woman he loves.