Theatre: An inheritance worth fighting over

Inheritors The Orange Tree, London
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The passionate tale of a radical young woman flying in the face of her family, fighting racism and willing to risk imprisonment for her radical beliefs sounds suspiciously like a bio-play based on Vanessa Redgrave. In fact, Susan Glaspell's remarkable play was written before Redgrave was born. These days, American politics is simply: you're either right wing, or very right wing. Discovering a play from 1921 pitting revolutionary progress against the ties that bind is quite shocking. Marlon Brando tried to raise the plight of native Americans by sending Sacheen Littlefeather (actually a two-bit actress and former Miss American Vampire) up the steps of the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion when he refused the Oscar for The Godfather; Glaspell not only beat him by 50 years, she came up with more dramatic arguments.

The major problem with Inheritors, and the probable reason for its neglect, is the slowness with which it yields up its considerable strengths. Act 1 takes place on a farm in Illinois in 1879, 12 years after the Civil War. Glaspell begins upsetting expectations with the reactions of three conflicting generations to what should happen to their land. At the centre is Silas Morton, a doughty pioneer farmer who looks out to the hill beyond their home and has a vision of using the land they have "stolen from the Indians" to found a college. He wants to give something back and fervently believes that education should be for everyone. There's undeniable passion here, but nothing can disguise the fact that this is only intermittently well-dressed exposition. Act 2, set 40 years later, is predicated on an understanding of all these carefully raised issues, but you wish that Glaspell were around to brandish the blue pencil.

Forty years on, the successful college is now a reality but times have changed. Felix, the son of a Hungarian exile who was Silas's closest friend, is a banker who runs the college and finds himself at odds with the local senator who controls its funding. The senator is applying the thumb screws over the "radical" activities of one of the staff members and Felix is the first of several characters to find himself trapped between idealism and expediency.

Until the arrival of Felix's naive niece Madeline, who is also Silas's granddaughter, the rather plodding production feels as if it is sagging beneath the weight of Glaspell's good intentions, but suddenly the temperature begins to rise. Wide-eyed and fiercely determined, Lise Stevenson gives a strikingly unadorned performance as a young woman forced to recognise the consequences of leaping to the defence of a group of Hindu students and assaulting a police officer. In a gripping series of dialogue scenes, members of her family and friends pile on the emotional (and dramatic) pressure trying to persuade her to understand the need for compromise. Will she ruin her life rather than use family connections to save herself? Is it worth destroying one's family to pursue revolutionary ideals? Glaspell writes powerfully convincing arguments for both sides with the result that you can second-guess neither Madeline's response nor the climax.

Sam Walters's direction is a touch wobbly, occasionally admitting an unnecessary earnestness into the proceedings, but the writing carries you through. Once again, he and the Orange Tree have unearthed a fascinating play. Full of sound and fury, it signifies a great deal.

To 5 April. Booking: 0181-940 3633