SOME PLAYS are described as intimate because they're produced on tiny stages. Others, like Portland Playhouse's production of Amy Herzog's After the Revolution, are intimate because they draw you in close and show you real things.
After the Revolution is about a young attorney, Emma Joseph (Jennifer Rowe), who runs a fund to help free Mumia Abu-Jamal, the activist and Black Panther convicted of killing a police officer in 1981. The fund is named in tribute to Emma's deceased grandfather, Joe Joseph, a Marxist blacklisted in the '50s for his beliefs. When some uncomfortable facts about Joe's past are unearthed, Emma's confidence in her family, cause, and beliefs is shaken.
Herzog was a 2013 Pulitzer Prize nominee for her play 4000 Miles (which shares characters with After the Revolution), and she has the chops to back that up: Her writing is incredibly true to life. That truth comes from how her characters speak so naturally and behave so normally: characters are funny when they're funny and sad when they're sad; when you see their quirks and cracks, they're credible and tangible.
Director Tamara Fisch, who has also directed this play in Massachusetts, handles it with the surety and subtlety it requires. The set is minimal but homey—just enough to feel like a specific place, but not so much that a quick rearrangement doesn't feel like another specific place. In some of the most affecting scenes, Emma's father Ben (Duffy Epstein) talks into a phone, while across the stage, hundreds of miles away, Emma listens to the message on her answering machine. In these scenes, Rowe is silent, broken, and breaking further, and pain radiates from her.
Much of the play is hard to watch for that reason. It's odd, because the stakes seem so low on paper: The only life-and-death situation is Abu-Jamal's, and he's not even a character in the play. But the writing, direction, and cast are so naturally and credibly laid out that you get the fly-on-the-wall feeling of watching an actual family struggle: trust questioned, love tested, expectations unmet.
That said, like a real family, there's comedy and tragedy both. Epstein's Ben gets many of the funniest lines, like when Emma says, "Oh, you moved the picture of Fidel," and he responds, "Yeah, well, I figured nobody got to see it where it was, in the bedroom." Vana O'Brien plays Ben's mother Vera, widow to Joe Joseph, losing her hearing and her memory but not her radical politics.
The intimacy in After the Revolution is in the immediacy of its emotional content. It feels so true that it seems to be happening to your family. It forces empathy. It's difficult because it depicts difficulty so accurately; it holds you close, makes you know a certain pain intimately.