Howard Zinn's historical drama "Emma" will teach you a lot about American history they never taught in high school civics class.
Now in the final weeks of its immensely successful engagement at the Next Move Theatre in Boston, Emma is an entertaining mix of documentary and drama, creating a vivid picture of the outlook and actions of America's turn of the century Anarchist movement and the colorful "Red" Emma Goldman.
Like last year's Little Flag Cooperative's production of "Fanshen," "Emma" is theater with an unmistakeable political message. Battling against the twin injustices of sexual discrimination and economic inequality, Zinn's Emma Goldman is both a social activist and humanist in her diverse roles as union organizer, lecturer, social worker and midwife.
As one might expect from a play that focuses on revolutionary politics and was written by a New Left B.U. political science professor turned playwright, the script of Emma is not flawless. The dialogue at times degenerates into trite cliches, complete with occasional bouts of slogan shouting.
The fine acting of the tight-knit Next Move Players compensates for many of these script problems. Geraldine Librandi's forceful portrayal of Emma, however, towers above the other, basically two-dimensional characterizations. Only in Librandi's Emma do we get a real feel of personal growth and change in a revolutionary facing triumphs and defeats over a 15 year period.
Librandi is at her best when faced with situations where Emma's radicalism and feminism cause her uneasiness, as in her first tense encounter with her long-time lover and fellow-revolutionary, Alexander Berkman, or when radical and feminist sentiments oppose and another.
The play treats, in a somewhat idealized fashion, Emma's long standing partnership with Alexander Berkman. Berkman in 1892 fails in an attempt to assasinate Henry Clay Frick, and throughout Berkman's 14 years in federal prison, Emma strengthens her position in the anarchist movement. But we are left with the feeling that when Berkman is finally released, he has lost his usefulness to the movement. In actuality, Emma and Alexander both continued their American leadership until they were deported to their native Russia in 1919 at the behest of U.S. Attorney General Palmer.
Obie award-winning director Maxine Klein uses a maximum of ingenuity in staging the play. With a relatively sparse set and few props, Klein makes the intimate 186-seat theater work for her, forcing the audience to become involved with her revolutionaries by staging many scenes along the aisles.
If you enjoy political theater, and are sympathetic to the social message the Next Move Players are offering here, do not miss "Emma." There are problems in the attempt to condense 15 years in the life of one of the American left's most energetic and colorful leaders into two hours.
Taken on its own terms, however, "Emma" is potentially the source of a very enjoyable and enlightening evening.