BWW Reviews: Group Rep's AWAKE AND SING a Mighty Tribute to Clifford Odets
A classic playwright from The Group Theatre, New York circa 1935, which included Stella and Luther Adler, Lee Strasberg, Elia Kazan and John Garfield, Clifford Odets became a champion of the working class, showing in his Awake and Sing! a real sense of economic struggle and survival... and a lucid vision of what was about to happen internationally. His voice of social awareness influenced the likes of Arthur Miller and William Inge, and frankly the political world in which he lived has not much changed over the last 80 years. Now in a rare revival, under the clear and solid direction of Larry Eisenberg, Group rep presents one of its finest productions of the topical Awake and Sing! with a stellar cast and creative team.
Odets really captures daily family life in the 30s to the minutest detail as Berger family matriarch Bessie (Michelle Bernath) clashes with her father Jacob (Stan Mazin) over just about everything including walking the dog Tootsie and turning off his music, and with her son Ralph (Troy Whitaker) and daughter Hennie (Christine Joelle) over their relationships with the opposite sex. Jewish mothers have always controlled their children's dating habits and whom they choose to go out with, and Bessie is no exception. She never feels, however, that she's doing anything injurious; if she denies them material possessions, she is quick to point out that she herself did without and so should they! Myron Berger (Patrick Burke) is Bessie's doormat and earns a meager salary, so Bessie takes in borders like fast-talking Moe Axelrod (Daniel Kaemon), an ex soldier with a wooden leg who has his eye on Hennie. Bessie objects to their liaison and Hennie, against her will, marries foreigner Sam (Marcos Cohen), who becomes a loving husband and father, but with whom she never finds an exciting kind of love/romance. Ralph is trying desperately to date a girl and receives his best encouragement from grandpa Jacob who simply adores him. Jacob is old-world all the way, a barber who gives 5 cent haircuts in the parlor, plays Caruso LPs and quotes Marx, which brings us to capitalist Uncle Morty, Bessie's successful brother (Robert Gallo), who owns a clothes factory and has more money than anyone else in the family can shake a stick at. Morty doesn't really argue with Jacob, but finds his simplistic ways amusing and the two duel loudly over changing politics and the importance of the dollar bill.
Sound familiar? With some exceptions that involve prices and technology, what transpires in 1934 could just as easily be the politics of 2013, where the rich trample on the poor and where newfangled trends and ideas do not sit well with those over 50. Even the young spout lines like "Fix it so life doesn't have to be printed on dollar bills!" Finances have always boggled the mind. Odets does manage to create unusual transformations by the end of Awake and Sing! as Hennie and Ralph move forward in unanticipated ways. It is surprising to see a rebellious son give in to his parents and turn down an inheritance, but to witness in 1934 a mother of a young child leave that child and her husband in favor of a life filled with risk and insecurity is downright shocking. But Odets' attempt to show his characters' divergent desires for true happiness is interestingly against the grain and makes for thought provoking theatre.
Under Eisenberg's even hand, Group rep's ensemble has a truly riveting chemistry. Bernath is a marvel. Stern, repressed and utterly unhappy, Bessie is somewhat sympathetic, yet Bernath turns 360 degrees lending her an unsentimental strength and satisfaction. Mazin has never been better, giving Jacob a desperate will to find some meaning in his otherwise faded life. His love and concern for Ralph's future is truly engrossing and heartfelt. Whitaker is simply wonderful as Ralph lending maturity and intelligence to the young boy's plight. Kaemon's role is a challenging one. Playing a soldier with a disability is a tricky proposition, as we are prone to sympathize, but Kaemon pushes the buttons on cockiness and independence, keeping us guessing. Praise as well to Gallo, Joelle, Cohen and Burke - very funny as the wimpy father, and to Edgar Mastin in a small role as the landlord. The actors all have fine emotional moments and give their characters a sense of dignity/integrity.
There's nothing quite like an old-fashioned story about real people, especially when we can see ourselves in their joys and sorrows, their strengths and particularly their weaknesses. With its heavy emphasis on regional dialect and old style language, Awake and Sing! requires strict attention from the start, but it offers a great rewarding payoff, so stay with it. You will love the characters and the actors who play them!