This is a play, in part, about the romance of communism and how it plays out in one Jewish communist family over three generations. From her notes in the program, the playwright’s experience growing up in a communist family gave birth to the play though it is not autobiographical. It is set in 1999 and Emma Joseph (Megan Anderson), who has just graduated from law school, has been running a fund she founded to assist the (real life) Mumia Abu-Jamal, a man convicted of murdering a policeman and on death row. The fund is named after Emma’s deceased paternal grandfather, who was a member of the Communist Party who took the fifth when brought before a Congressional committee and was blacklisted.
A crisis occurs when a book appears showing that the grandfather spied for the Soviet Union during the Second World War while he held a governmental post in the U.S. What will Emma do about her fund.? More intimately, how can she relate to the memory of her grandfather whom she loves and venerates even as she is appalled at this revelation? Emma does not seek to excuse or minimize her grandfather’s crimes and, in this, she differs from her father, Ben (a particularly effective Peter Birkenhead) and step-grandmother Vera (Nancy Robinette). Emma begins to look at her politics, her grandfather, and the whole family in a different way.
Thus, this is at least as much of a family drama as an ideological one. The staging at Theater J in Washington, D.C. emphasizes the color red but also puts the places family and friends meet–a bedroom, a living room, a restaurant–together on the stage helping to create a sense of intimacy. Emma and the others have to deal not simply with matters of ideology and morality, but also with personal (especially familial) relationships in light of the new public knowledge of the grandfather’s actions.
The play’s depiction of the differences amongst the three Joseph generations –the rigid and austere communism of the grandparents, the Marxism cum political correctness of Ben, and the more diffusive leftism of Emma–is interesting to behold. There are also two stepmothers in the play, Vera and Ben’s wife Mel (Susan Rome) which adds to the domestic complexities. Ms, Herzog has written an unsentimental play but not a tragic one. (Perhaps a different production would convey even more tension than this one does.) If family proves stronger than ideology, the latter does not disappear.