Anyone who had lived through the Great Depression could tell you how difficult and scary that time was. Not only was there real concern that one day you would lose the roof over your head or not being able to put food on the table but that these real fears and pressures could tear a family’s fabric to the point that dreams are tossed aside in order to live for the day. The Depression meant a severe economic downturn but it also meant a state of mind that resulted from it.
Such was the backdrop in Clifford Odets’ potent Depression-era drama-comedy Awake and Sing! that is now playing at the Main Stage of the Olney Theatre Center. In 1931 Odets, as an actor, was a founding member of the Group Theatre, a highly influential New York theatre company led by Lee Strasberg. Group employed a new acting technique in U.S. theatre that eventually was called “Method Acting.” Odets became the Group Theatre’s principal playwright, and in 1932, experiencing the financially bleak conditions during that period, began working on I Got the Blues, which turned into Awake and Sing!
The play opened and closed on Broadway in 1935 after 184 performances, and following numerous revivals in the United States and elsewhere, the 2006 Broadway revival garnered two Tony Awards.
Making his Olney Theatre Center debut, Helen Hayes Award-winning Director Serge Seiden expertly guides the talented cast and crew of Awake and Sing! Under Mr. Seiden, the actors believably convey the economic challenges and personal strains facing the Berger family, a Jewish middle-class clan in the Bronx circa 1933 and blend that with acerbic witticisms delivered by Odets’ characters.
The cast’s wonderful performances did the play justice, and Awake and Sing! is highly recommended.
Bessie Berger, the family’s stern matriarch is the least sympathetic character given that her two children’s dreams are squashed by her because of her economic insecurities. Bessie’s likability sinks further because of her complete lack of warmth and affection towards the other family members.
Played dynamically by two-time Helen Hayes Award winner Naomi Jacobson, Bessie strikes fear in the three-generation Berger household that includes her nebbish husband Myron (played by Paul Morella); her leftist father Jacob (Rick Foucheux, another Helen Hayes winner); her 22 year-old idealistic son Ralph (Alex Mandell); 26 year-old daughter Hennie (Laura C. Harris) who was pregnant out of wedlock and is pressured into a loveless marriage; and a family friend, Moe Axelrod (Chris Genebach), who eventually became a boarder and a suitor for Hennie.
Though Bessie’s strong and demanding personality is guided by her worries over money and to keep the family together, she uses Yiddish syntax and expressions for comic relief of which there is a good dose. Her ineffectual husband Myron, who paradoxically admires the strong-willed Teddy Roosevelt, is compliant to Bessie as are the rest of the family members. Only Ralph attempts to stand up to her but falls short repeatedly.
Ms. Jacobson adroitly brings this persona to life playing the juicy role of Bessie. Her onstage performance is convincing as a woman who desires respect and respectability and uses power over the family to control them.
As young Ralph, Alex Mandell’s athleticism and passion provides lively movement and dialogue on the stage and whose skills should afford him a bright future in theatre. In displaying a range of emotions from self-pity to anger Ralph frequently decries the lack of possessions he is missing—complaining that life should not be printed on dollar bills—and the restraint put on him by his mother in his pursuit of a girl who is an orphan, a status that Bessie condemns.
The only character he bonds with is his grandfather Jacob who is fighting the same fight—trying to live life and not let Bessie ruin it. In effect, as a mentor, Jacob takes on the role that Ralph’s father never did.
Mr. Foucheux’s portrayal of Jacob is outstanding as he quotes the Old Testament, enjoys listening to Caruso and idolizes Karl Marx. He imparts guidance for Ralph, encourages him to pursue his dreams, and takes steps to ensure that, which leads to a powerful conclusion. The onstage chemistry between the two actors is compelling and provides the tenderest moments in the play.
Chris Genebach as Moe turns in a splendid performance as a one-legged war veteran who targets Hennie as his romantic interest from the outset but faces constant rejection. Also performing admirably is Paul Morella as Bessie’s weak husband Myron, Richard Pelzman as Bessie’s big shot businessman brother Morty, Laura C. Harris as the conflicted Hennie, and Joshua Morgan as Sam Feinschreiber, the unwitting husband of Hennie who was unaware the baby is not his.
Scenic Designer Jack Magaw makes a solid Olney Theatre Center debut by constructing an authentic 1930s apartment setting on two levels for the play. The set contains period kitchen furniture, a living room, a room with a day bed, and doors to other rooms to allow for entrances and exits adding depth to the apartment. In addition, there is a 1930s radio, candlestick phone and faux Persian rugs.
Contributing to the atmosphere is the modest period wardrobe designed by Caitlin Rain. Max Krembs sound design effectively included music through the radio, occasional doorbells and other effects. And Daniel MacLean Wagner’s lighting design is beautiful!
Mr. Seiden superbly directed Odets’ powerful play that depicted a time when economic troubles can trump everything else. The cast’s wonderful performances did the play justice, and Awake and Sing! is highly recommended.
Running Time: Two hours and twenty-five minutes with an intermission.
Awake and Sing! runs through October 19 at the Main Stage of the Olney Theatre Center, 2001 Olney-Sandy Spring Road, Olney, MD 20832. For tickets, you may call 301-924-3400 or visit online.