note: entire contents copyright 2014 by Sheila Barth
When Clifford Odets’ dramatic, American post-Depression Era play, “Awake and Sing!” premiered on Broadway in 1935, it struck a nerve with the financially, politically and socially struggling public. It’s striking the same nerve today.
Even though this three-act, bittersweet drama is set in 1935-6, it resonates strongly with our post-recession society and erosion of today’s middle class.
Odets spins a provocative, convoluted tale, with unpredictable surprises and a resolved ending. Set in New York City’s crowded, Bronx tenements, Odets depicts a three-generation family living together in a crowded apartment, trying to make ends meet while hoping to advance financially. Odet’s primary characters, the Berger family, also have their inner battles, with clashing ideologies. They work hard, but the immigrant concepts of America’s streets being paved with gold and every cloud has its silver lining elude them.
Also, for people who grew up in homes with immigrant grandparents and first generation parents, where Yiddish words, phrases and sentences colored their everyday language, “Awake and Sing!” is a nostalgic trip to when relatives were close and inter-dependent.
For non-Jewish theatergoers, words like “shiksa” (non-Jewish girl) and “boychik,” (boy), sound foreign, but this cast’s fine acting- especially Will LeBow’s superb portrayal of Marxist father-grandfather Jacob - makes their meaning crystal clear.
The lion’s share of this production’s strength lies with LeBow and Director Melia Bensussen, who draw upon personal experiences that parallel the Bergers.
Bensussen (who’s also the chairman of Emerson College’s Performing Arts Department), said she has a strong feel for them and their circumstances, because she, too, grew up Jewish in New York City, and her family experienced many of the same circumstances. LeBow, who portrays idealistic grandfather, Jacob Berger, said he did, too, but his situation was painful and alienated.
LeBow is the “guts” and glue of this play, the patriarch whose power to lead his family is compromised by his daughter, Bessie, a homemaker bent on pushing her son and daughter to improve their lot financially. As Bessie, Lori Wilner convincingly depicts the typical Jewish mother then, who fends off problems by tackling them head-on, uncompromisingly. To escape Bessie’s harangues, Jacob finds refuge in his record collection, playing Caruso, classical and Yiddish music, and reading his Marxist literature and newspapers. He also enjoys an unconditional, loving relationship with his 22-year-old grandson, Ralph,giving the young man advice and support.
Bessie wants Ralph and his 26-year-old, pretty sister, Hennie, to secure their financial future, while Jacob, advises, “Life shouldn’t be printed on dollar bills”. He wants the family to tackle greater causes, for the common good and welfare of mankind.
Bessie’s plans for her children are thwarted, though. Hennie is pregnant, and the father has “disappeared”. And oy! Ralphie is in love (God forbid) with a non-Jewish girl and wants to marry her. Today, intermarriage is no big deal, but in the past, it was unthinkable for Jews and also Catholics.
Bessie gets no support from her weak husband, Myron, (Davd Wohl), so she turns to her slick businessman brother, Morty, (Stephen Schnetzer), for advice. Tossed into this mix - or mess - is the Bergers’ interfering boarder, Moe Axelrod (Eric T. Miller), a wounded veteran with one leg, who has big dreams and loves Hennie.
Nael Nacer as docile immigrant Sam Feinschreiber, with whom Bessie arranged to marry Hennie, and Kevin Fennessey portraying building janitor, Schlosser, nicely round out the cast.
Creating the play’s climate, James Noone’s remarkable set boasts background tenements. In the foreground, scrims open on the modest, well-kept Berger apartment. Walled partitions move, revealing a bedroom, dining room, and Jacob’s corner, where he listens to his music, and escapes the family turmoil. Michael Krass‘ costumes handsomely hearken back to the 1930s, while Rob Milburn and Michael Bodeen’s sound effects successfully override the theater’s acoustical drawbacks.
BOX INFO: Clifford Odets’ three-act American classic drama, appearing with the Huntington Theatre Company through Dec. 7, at the BU Theatre, Avenue of the Arts, 264 Huntington St., Boston. Performances: Monday, Nov. 24, Tuesday-Thursday, at 7:30 p.m. (no show Thanksgiving); Friday, 8 p.m.; Saturday, 2,8 p.m.; Sunday, 2 p.m., Nov, 30, 2,7 p.m.; matinees, Wednesday, Nov. 19, Dec.3,at 2,7:30 p.m. Tickets start at $25; check for discounts for seniors, subscribers, BU community, 35 Below and students, military with valid IDs, also for related events. Call 617-266-0800, visit huntingtontheatre.org, the Box Office, or at 527 Tremont St., South End, Boston.