Center Stage is becoming the place in Baltimore for experiments in repertory theater. An audience can get an extra buzz when two plays are presented with overlapping themes, characters, casts, directors, designers, and/or schedules. That happened two years ago when the theater presented two plays simultaneously: Bruce Norris’ “Clybourne Park” and artistic director Kwame Kwei-Armah’s own “Beneatha’s Place.” Both plays were sequels to Lorraine Hansberry’s “Raisin in the Sun,” and the dialogue among those three plays was almost as interesting as the dialogue within each show.
Now Center Stage is attempting something similar. The Amy Herzog Festival will feature two plays by the award-winning, 36-year-old playwright: 2010's "After the Revolution" and 2011's "4000 Miles." The two scripts center on a family of Greenwich Village communists and socialists and the way universal family problems intersect with deeply held beliefs. If the beliefs had been Christian rather than Marxist, the plays might not have changed all that much.
Only one character, the elderly Vera, appears in both shows, but her extended family—a dead husband, three children, seven grandchildren, and assorted romantic partners—are talked about in both plays and often show up in one play or the other. Two of Vera's stepsons, the high school teacher Ben and the college professor Leo, are primary characters in "After the Revolution," and while they don't show up in "4000 Miles," they are discussed there. Jane, the third, less-political child, doesn't appear in either show, but she is mentioned in both, and her son, also named Leo, is a main character in "4000 Miles."
After reading both scripts, I felt like someone who had been brought as a date to a family reunion—and after a weekend of garrulous storytelling felt like an honorary member of the clan. The hope of Kwei-Armah, who conceived the festival, and of Lila Neugebauer, who is directing both shows, is that audience members, after seeing the two plays, will feel the same.
"These plays are in conversation with each other," Neugebauer says. "They beg to be performed together. In both plays, Amy is asking, to what extent are we defined by our families and our family histories? How much of that is irrevocable and how much of that is choice? In both plays characters are forced to deal with fissures or cracks in their world as they've known it up to that point. That's traumatic, but it presents the potential for something new. Amy's addressing how we change. These are coming-of-age plays for people who are 20, 54, and 91."
In "After the Revolution," Vera's granddaughter Emma, a workaholic political activist in the family tradition, is suffering a crisis of conscience because she has just discovered a disheartening secret about her heroic grandfather. Can she keep working for an organization named after him, as her father and uncle urge?
In "4000 Miles" Vera's grandson Leo shows up at her West Village apartment one night in 2009, having ridden his bicycle all the way from Seattle—hence the title. A self-absorbed, not-very-political child of privilege, he exasperates his grandmother until she learns how he has lost his girlfriend and best male friend during the trip.
The playwright Herzog comes from a liberal New York family (her grandfather Arthur Herzog Jr. co-wrote the lyrics for the Billie Holiday songs 'God Bless the Child' and 'Don't Explain') and the director comes from a similar background. Neugebauer met the younger Herzog through their mutual friend Annie Baker, whose play "Circle Mirror Transformation" is now playing at Rep Stage. After training at Yale, Steppenwolf, Berkeley Rep, and the Humana Festival, Neugebauer has emerged as a leading director of contemporary plays.
Because the plays share only one character, only one performer is in both casts: Lois Markle as Vera. But Neugebauer has been "astounded," she says, by how the two casts have interacted with each other and been energized by each other. They have sat in on each other's rehearsals, the director reports, and hang out at the bar together. It really has started to feel like a family reunion.
Keeping all this straight would seem to be a challenge for Neugebauer and her backstage team, which is the same for both shows. Part of that is logistical, switching from three days of tech rehearsal with one show to three days with another and then back again, for example. But part of it is aesthetic as well, for it has to be clear that both plays are part of the same world—or else, why are you doing them in repertory? But each play also has to stand as a distinct, self-contained story. How do you find the right balance?
"Certain things tie the shows together," Neugebauer says. "There's an intergenerational conflict in each play. There's a recognition that change can come at any age. At the end of 'After the Revolution,' Ben says, 'I'm trying to learn. Even at my age.' At the end of '4000 Miles,' Vera says, 'You'd think at my age I'd know better than to get used to anything.' The plays are about how we have to walk through life with our hearts continually breaking, and we have to heal ourselves and others in small ways—and even when we do, the cracks remain.
"But there are crucial differences between the plays too," she adds. "'4000 Miles' is an exercise in hyper-realism. The revelations happen more gradually, through encounters that seem inconsequential but end up being transformative. It all takes place in one apartment with just four characters. By contrast, 'After the Revolution' has a more explicit, more theatrical, if you will, conflict at the heart of the play. It has eight characters and multiple locations."
To simultaneously link and distinguish the two shows, Neugebauer and her set designer Daniel Zimmerman came up with an ingenious solution. "4000 Miles" is set in the extremely realistic recreation of an aging New York lefty's apartment. "It was important that the books on the shelves be the right books," the director says.
Elements of that set are recycled for "After the Revolution" but in scrambled fashion. Most of the props are removed; the ceiling is raised 10 feet; some walls are pushed back, and others are tilted at a diagonal. "It's as if the molten ball of emotion in '4000 Miles' exploded and blew the apartment apart," says Neugebauer. She hopes the same ball of emotion explodes not just architecturally but dramatically as well.